Firestorm by Tamara McKinley – Extract

Firestorm

Long before the white man came to Australia, the Aborigines understood the importance of fire, for it cleanses and clears away the debris of old vegetation to regenerate, propagate and nurture the circle of new life in the bushlands of the Outback.

And yet, when a firestorm threatens an isolated and perhaps divided community, it brings not only devastation and fear, but binds those people in one purpose – to overcome and survive. In the aftermath of such a fire comes the chance to set aside old enmities, past regrets and sadness and to begin rebuilding their lives and nurture what matters most. For in the ashes of the past lie the dormant seeds of new beginnings, and hope for a future unclouded by what had come before.

1

Brisbane, 1946

He knew he must cut a strange, solitary figure in the ill-fitting suit someone had kindly given him, but he had money in his pocket and army discharge papers in his kitbag. To all intents and purposes, he was a free man.

But it wasn’t just the glare on the water that brought the tears to his eyes as he looked out across the Brisbane River, and as they rolled down his thin face he unashamedly let them fall. He’d waited so long to return home to Australia, had held the scents, sights and sounds in his head and heart like a sweet promise to sustain him throughout the horrors of jungle warfare and the privations of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. But he’d found no redemption in this homecoming, for despite the long months of care in the hospital, he was still haunted by his experiences, and now had to face a new battle against another, far more invincible enemy.

He was thirty-four, and had seen things no man should ever see – had survived the worst of man’s inhumanity, only to discover that his weakened, battered body had been invaded by cancer and that he was going to die anyway. The irony of his situation hit him hard, and he raged silently against the cruelty of Fate as he dashed away the tears and struggled for composure.

Once he felt ready to face the world again, he hoisted the kitbag over his bony shoulder, turned his back on the river and headed for the train station. He’d discharged himself from the hospital this morning against doctor’s orders, but he had a feeling the surgeon understood his need to use whatever time was left to him to embrace this momentary freedom and seek some kind of peace.

He slowly made his way through the bustling city, awed by the new buildings and the sense of purpose in the people around him. It was daunting to be free after so many years of following orders and being under the lash, and he was disconcerted by the traffic noise and the swirl of people hurrying past him. The city had changed during his absence – but then so had he – and now he was a stranger, invisible to those around him, a thin shadowy figure spared not even a glance.

Their lack of curiosity didn’t touch him as he continued on his way, for his heart and his mind were focused on a place far from here – a place where the silence is broken only by the sough of the wind in the eucalyptus – where the enormous sky stretches above endless plains of rich red earth and scrubby pastures, and the clear, bright light falls on the old wallaby tracks that would eventually lead him home.

*****

The deep rumbles of thunder rolled over the Outback plains, the sky darkening with roiling clouds as forks of lighting flashed over the hills, reflected in the depleted rivers and billabongs. The heat was intense, the very air electric with the powerful storm that was building to the south-west of Morgan’s Reach. And, as the desperate farmers looked up at those threatening skies from their parched land, they prayed that this time the storm would break and that after three long years of waiting the rains would finally come.

Morgan’s Reach exists only because of the natural spring that flows even in the driest years. The tiny settlement of less than twenty dwellings lies deep in the Queensland Outback, far from the highway at the end of a meandering dirt track. The main street is half a mile long and wide enough to accommodate a team of oxen, but it leads only to the cattle trails and ancient Aboriginal and animal tracks that traverse the surrounding bush. There are no signposts to Morgan’s Reach, for the people who live and work on the vast sheep and cattle stations that surround it know where it is and, because of its geography, it remains hidden from outsiders unless they have business there.

Rebecca Jackson’s grandfather, Rhys Morgan, was a doctor of medicine, explorer, adventurer, benefactor and eccentric who stumbled across this remote oasis back in 1889. Having discovered what he considered to be the perfect location for a bush hospital, he’d celebrated his fortieth birthday by digging the foundations of the hospital and giving the settlement his name. All he needed then was a wife.

Gwyneth Davies was twenty and feeling stifled by her parents’ ever-pressing desire to see her married off to a man they thought could elevate their position in Brisbane society. Her resolve was beginning to weaken when she literally bumped into Rhys Morgan on the boardwalk outside the drapers’ shop. In the time it had taken to gather up her packages and accept his offer of a cup of tea in a nearby cafe, Gwyneth had fallen in love.

Despite her genteel upbringing, Gwyneth was of tough Welsh stock, and not easily daunted by the prospect of living out her life in the back of beyond and, with this exciting, driven man at her side, she knew she was in for an adventure.

Yet she was a woman of strong opinions, and when she caught her first glimpse of the brushwood and tin hovel her new husband expected her to live in, she’d made it very clear that she had no intentions of doing so. Rhys, rather awestruck by this forceful young woman he’d married, quickly realised that if he was to keep her, he must build her a proper home. Gwyneth had overseen the work with a judicious eye to detail, and when she was satisfied that it suited her she’d moved in the furniture she’d brought with her, rolled up her sleeves and got on with her new and challenging life.

Over the decades that followed, Gwyneth worked at Rhys’s side, tending the sick and comforting the dying. She endured the flies and the dust in this most primitive of surroundings, and learned to survive fire, flood, heat and drought as she raised her six children and bullied the School Board into sending a teacher to the small school she’d had built in the centre of town.

Rhys had become close to three of his grandchildren, Millicent, Rebecca and Terence, and had lived long enough to meet his great-grandson, Danny. He’d reached the grand age of ninety when in the spring of 1939 he finally succumbed to the harsh environment and the pressures of his far-flung practice. Gwyneth had lost not only a husband, but her dearest, closest friend, and she mourned him still. Yet she gave thanks that he’d gone in peace, safe in the knowledge that his eldest son, Hugh, would carry on his lifetime’s work, and that Hugh’s wife, Jane, and daughter, Rebecca, would be at his side.

The bush hospital had changed since those very early days, and the facilities it offered now were far more sophisticated. In place of the old tumbledown shack there was a single-storey wooden building that stood back from the road in a large plot, its deep verandas and green painted shutters offering shade on the hottest of days and a view down the dirt track that eventually met the main highway. There was a single ward, an isolation room, a consulting room with a small operating theatre tucked behind it in case of emergencies, a kitchen and a proper indoor bathroom and lavatory. The medical stores were kept under lock and key behind a sturdy door, and the two-way radio was linked to the one in the homestead next door where Rebecca and her nine-year-old son, Danny, now lived with her parents.

Rebecca had closed all the shutters to keep out the fierce noonday sun, so the ward was dim and should have been relatively cool. But the squeaking ceiling fan wasn’t doing much to alleviate the heat and, as she walked down the ward to check on her six patients, she made a mental note to get it oiled before it drove everyone mad.

Her starched apron crackled as she moved quietly past the beds in her rubber-soled shoes. It was unusual to have every bed occupied, but none of the cases had been serious enough for the Flying Doctor to whisk them away to the main hospital in Brisbane, and most of them would go home the following day. Satisfied that they were comfortable after their lunch, she left them to doze and went out onto the veranda.

The heat shimmered on the wide dirt road and the air was still and heavy, laced with a tang of copper that heralded an electric storm. Eucalyptus trees wilted by the depleted waterhole, and the birds were silent as the sun beat down on the corrugated iron roofs and patches of yellowing grass. There had been no rain worth mentioning for over three years now, and the likelihood of fire was growing by the day as the farmers on the outlying cattle and sheep stations struggled to feed and water their dwindling stock.

Rebecca unfastened the top button of her blue-and-white striped dress, thankful she didn’t wear starched collars and cuffs as she’d had to during her training in Sydney. She checked the watch pinned to her apron bib, glanced up at the dark clouds gathering to the west and then surveyed the deserted road that ran through the small settlement. There was no sign of Danny, even though she’d told him in no uncertain terms to be back here by twelve. At this rate, she thought darkly, he was in danger of missing out on his birthday party tomorrow.

She chewed her lip, fretful at the memory of how he’d refused to listen to her this morning when she’d tried to explain yet again that his father, Adam, was dead and that there was no hope of his ever returning – and how he’d stomped off, slamming the screen door behind him. Her son’s habit of disappearing into the bush was worrying – not least because of the reason he kept doing it. She had hoped that now he’d started at boarding school in Brisbane he’d grow out of this obsession and realise it was a childish fantasy born of a deep longing – but it seemed that nothing had changed, and that this school holiday would follow the same pattern as all the others.

Rebecca had thought long and hard about how to deal with Danny – had even driven the sixty miles north to Killigarth Station to seek advice from her best friend, Amy Blake. Their circumstances were very similar, for Amy was a war widow too, her husband John killed in Malaya just like Adam. She lived with her parents on their cattle station so, like Rebecca, had the love and support of her family to help her through the painful mourning period and to raise her son, George, who was the same age as Danny. But even the wise and gentle Amy couldn’t help, and it made Rebecca feel very alone sometimes.

Impatient that she was beginning to feel sorry for herself, Rebecca left the shade of the veranda, pushed through the outer screen door and went down the steps and into the glare of the sun. She was used to the vagaries of the Outback weather, for she’d been born and raised in Morgan’s Reach and had spent nearly every one of her thirty years here, but it was sad to see how badly her mother’s lovely garden had been ravaged by the long drought.

She crossed the dying lawn, noted her father’s old utility was parked by the homestead steps and pushed through the fly-screen doors that sheltered the veranda and the house. Nothing much had changed since her childhood, for the furniture had always been battered, the curtains and rugs faded by the sun, but it was home – a refuge she and Danny had returned to when it was clear that Adam would not be coming back from the war.

Her parents, Hugh and Jane, were sitting in the shabby kitchen, the remains of their hasty lunch scattered on the table. Hugh looked exhausted, with dark shadows under his eyes, but Jane looked as cool and elegant as ever in her nurse’s uniform.

‘Have you seen Danny?’ Rebecca asked.

Hugh shook his head. ‘I’ve only just got back from Warratah Station, and didn’t pass him on the track. Why? You lost him again?’

Rebecca nodded and headed back to the door. ‘I’ll go and see if he’s with Gran,’ she said.

‘You worry too much over that boy,’ said Hugh through a vast yawn. ‘He’ll be ten tomorrow, and he knows his way around the bush.’

Rebecca and her mother exchanged knowing looks, for they shared the same worry over Danny – and it had very little to do with his familiarity with the bush and its dangers. ‘That’s as maybe,’ she replied, ‘but he’s running wild, and it’s time he learned to do as he’s told.’

She left the homestead and crossed the deserted main street to the house on the corner. Granny Gwyn lived in a neat one-storey wooden stilt-house which faced the hospital but backed onto the bush, and Danny loved going over there to help look after Gwyneth’s menagerie of sick and abandoned animals, and to listen to her many stories about the old days. If he wasn’t there, then she’d have to go and see Sarah at the native shacks on the far side of the town to see if her son, Billy Blue, had disappeared too. The pair of them were always going off together, and she wouldn’t mind betting they were up to some mischief or other.

As she was about to unlatch the gate she heard the unmistakable roar of a fast-moving truck. Turning, she realised it was Ben Freeman, the local fire chief, and as he screeched to a halt beside her he covered her in a cloud of dust.

Despite her pleasure at seeing him, she greeted him with a frown. ‘Thanks, Ben,’ she muttered, trying to shake the worst of the dirt from her apron and dress. ‘These were clean on this morning, and now I’m going to have to change before I go back on the ward.’

‘Sorry, Becky,’ he drawled as he swung out of the utility and ambled over to her.

He didn’t look a bit sorry – not with that stupid grin on his face. But it was a grin that made her heart flutter and sent a thrill right through her, so she supposed she would have to forgive him. ‘What’s the rush anyway?’ she asked, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked from the boots and moleskins, past the check shirt straining across the broad chest and up to his face.

‘I wanted to catch you on your lunch break,’ he replied, his very blue eyes regarding her from beneath the broad brim of his bush hat. ‘I wondered if you and Danny might like to come up to my place for some tucker this evening?’

‘That would be good, Ben, but Danny’s gone walkabout again, and when I do find him, he’ll be confined to his room for the rest of the day.’ She smiled up at him to soften her refusal. ‘I’m sorry. Perhaps another time?’

He tucked his hands into the pockets of his moleskins as he leaned against the utility and crossed his long legs at the ankle. ‘I reckon I can wait a while longer,’ he said softly, ‘but it’s been almost a year, Becky. I was hoping we could make it a more permanent arrangement between us.’

She let him take her hand and draw her towards him. ‘We will, Ben, I promise,’ she replied. ‘But Danny has to get used to the idea, and he’s not ready yet. Please be patient.’

‘I’ll try, Becky, but it ain’t easy,’ he murmured.

His eyes were mesmerising as he gazed down at her and she could see the fine lines across the tanned flesh of his face. At thirty-five, Ben was a handsome man, and the knowledge that he loved her and wanted to marry her and take on Danny made her feel a warmth that had little to do with the blazing sun.

‘I’m sure we could manage a few quiet minutes together while Danny’s party’s in full swing tomorrow,’ she said softly. ‘And then there are the picnic races next month. Perhaps we could all go and make a day of it?’

‘Yeah, that’d be good. Want me to pick you up?’

She thought about it and then shook her head. ‘It’s probably better if we meet you there.’

‘You’re not having second thoughts about us, are you?’ His expression changed and his eyes clouded with doubt.

She glanced quickly along the street and lightly kissed his cheek. ‘Not for a minute,’ she assured him. ‘You’re the man for me, Ben Freeman,’ she added softly, ‘and I have no intention of losing you. But you know how gossip starts out here – let’s keep it to ourselves a bit longer, eh?’

He grinned down at her. ‘Reckon that’ll have to do for now,’ he said.

She giggled. ‘Reckon it will. Now, I really do have to go.’ ‘Catch you later then,’ he said wistfully. At her nod, he tipped his hat brim over his eyes and opened the utility door. ‘I’ll keep an eye out for Danny,’ he reassured her, ‘and if I come across him, I’ll bring him home.’

Rebecca watched as he drove off, raising yet another cloud of dust in his wake. Poor Ben had been badly hurt once before, receiving a ‘Dear John’ letter from his fiancée while he was fighting Rommel’s army in Egypt – and it was clear that he’d begun to wonder if Rebecca was really serious about their relationship.

She gave a deep sigh as she walked down the path and headed towards the back of her grandmother’s house for, in their different ways, they’d both been damaged by the war. And yet time was indeed a great healer, and now they were ready to commit to a new future together. But Danny was the sticking point, and she could do nothing to further this burgeoning relationship until her son would accept that his father was dead.

*****

Gwyneth was feeling every one of her seventy-seven years today, but was damned if she was going to let a few niggles stop her getting through her many chores. She ignored the ache in her knees and shoulders as she finished feeding the last of the orphaned kangaroo joeys and tucked him firmly down into the pillowcase that she’d tied to the veranda railings. There were four pillowcases in all, each bulging with its long-legged cargo, and it had become quite time-consuming to look after them all when she had so many other things to attend to. It was at times like this that she missed Danny, and she fleetingly wondered where he’d got to this morning.

‘G’day, Gran. Is Danny with you?’

Gwyneth turned and her welcoming smile faltered as she noted Rebecca’s worried expression. ‘I haven’t seen him since he came to feed Wally last night,’ she replied. ‘Why? Has he gone off with Billy Blue again?’

Rebecca chewed her lip. ‘It looks like it,’ she muttered crossly, ‘and when I get hold of him he’ll get a clip round the ear for disobeying me.’

Gwyneth shrugged in an attempt to lighten Rebecca’s worry. ‘He’s a little boy,’ she replied, ‘and boys rarely do as they’re told. I shouldn’t worry, Rebecca. He knows the bush well enough and will be back when he’s hungry.’

‘That’s not the point, Gran, and you know it.’ Rebecca’s blue eyes glistened with unshed tears as she tucked her light brown hair behind her ears. ‘I thought it would be different now he’s away at school so much of the year. But it seems he’s still unable to accept . . .’ She blinked rapidly and folded her arms tightly about her waist. ‘I tried talking to him this morning, but he stormed off, refusing to listen. It’s as if he’s punishing me every time he goes bush, and I don’t know what to do for the best, Gran,’ she admitted softly.

Gwyneth had her own ideas about that, but knew Rebecca was in no mood to listen to some straight talking. In many ways, Danny and his mother were very alike, for they didn’t appreciate good advice, no matter how well-meant it was. And yet Rebecca had been through a lot these past years, and she deserved all the help she could get. ‘I’ll try to have a word with him again,’ she murmured, ‘but don’t expect miracles, Becky. It’s a big thing to come to terms with.’

‘George Blake is the same age, but he’s accepted that John won’t be coming back. I had hoped that now they were at school in Brisbane together, Danny would follow his lead,’ she replied with a watery smile.

‘He’s a bright little boy who thinks too much,’ said Gwyneth drily, ‘but eventually he’s going to have to accept the way things are. And he will, Becky. I promise.’

‘I hope you’re right.’ She sighed. ‘This has gone on long enough, and every time he disappears into the bush it just brings it all back – and I need to put it behind me now – start again.’

Gwyneth eyed her granddaughter fondly. ‘Then that is what you must do,’ she said briskly. ‘You’re still young, and Ben Freeman seems to be a good man.’

Rebecca blushed. ‘How do you know about Ben?’

Gwyneth chuckled. ‘I might be getting on, but I’m not blind, or daft. I’ve noticed how he’s been coming into town more regularly – and the way you are with him.’

‘I’d better get back,’ she said, the blush still colouring her cheeks. ‘Dad’s worn out from being up all night, Mum has some house calls to make this afternoon, and there are still a hundred and one things to do for Danny’s birthday party. If you see that young larrikin, tell him to get his skinny backside home, or suffer the consequences.’

Gwyneth watched her leave, then brushed back the stray wisps of grey hair from her sweaty face, rubbed her grubby hands down her trousers and tugged at the hem of her loose cotton shirt. She’d never been a woman who’d set much store in fancy clothes or make-up, and living out here all these years meant it was practical and comfortable to wear sturdy boots and old, scruffy clothes worn soft with use. But she was feeling the heat today, could taste the copper in the air and the weight of the gathering storm – not only from the elements, but within her family.

With her thoughts still troubled by Rebecca’s unhappy situation, she grabbed her walking stick and broad-brimmed hat and went carefully down the veranda steps to check on the rest of her menagerie.

The chicken run and aviary had been set up in the shade of the trees at the bottom of the garden where the bush slowly encroached on the settlement and the  feral  goats  grazed. The pens beside the runs were for the injured and orphaned animals that people always seemed to be bringing her, and she spent hours every day cleaning them out and tending to them.

There was a lorikeet with a broken wing, a pair of orphaned possums, several lizards of various types and with various injuries, a rock wallaby recovering from a nasty abscess and a wombat joey that had been born, unusually, during this long drought, and which would have died of starvation if she hadn’t found him cowering in the abandoned burrow.

The lorikeet was almost ready to be released, and the possums were thriving. The lizards were asleep in their hollowed-out tree branches, so it was difficult to tell how they were, and the tiny rock wallaby’s abscess was healing nicely. She nodded with satisfaction, glanced about her and realised Wally, the wombat joey, had escaped from the burrow she’d made for him under the veranda. No doubt he was around somewhere, getting into mischief – just like young Danny.

She fed the chickens and stood in the shade of the overhanging trees, relishing the brief respite from the sun as she regarded her surroundings. Morgan’s Reach might be isolated, the population scattered – but it was a tight-knit community that had not escaped the dark, tragic clouds of two world wars.

Two generations of young Australian men had heard the call to arms from England – the land they still considered their ‘mother country’ – and they had rushed to enlist, eager to fight and prove their courage. They’d left the rural stations to the women, their Aboriginal stockmen and those too old, too young or too unfit to be drafted into the services, trusting that there would be something to come home to when it was all over. But, like Rebecca’s Adam and Amy Blake’s John, many had not returned, and their loss was still sorely felt by everyone.

She experienced the now familiar pang of sadness, but didn’t allow it to linger for it did no good to anyone, and turned her attention to a much earlier past. Morgan’s Reach had grown since she and Rhys had come here all those years ago, and Gwyneth’s lips twitched with a wry smile as she remembered how shocked she’d been to discover Rhys’s paradise was in fact a ragtag collection of ramshackle wooden houses, dubious tin shacks and wattle-and-daub humpies.

The bush hospital that Rhys had so proudly expounded upon turned out to be a one-roomed wooden shack on stilts with a veranda and a sagging roof – and their proposed home wasn’t much better. There was no door or window, the floor was compacted earth and she’d been expected to cook on a camp oven which had been set outside next to a washtub and mangle. It was a far cry from the comfortable home she’d had in Brisbane, and she’d told him in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t live there.

Gwyneth chuckled. Poor Rhys. He hadn’t quite realised then how strong-willed she was, but over the years he’d come to admire her spirit, and she could look back on a long and happy marriage.

Morgan’s Reach in those days had a tiny church, a pub and a general store which stood beside the single dirt track that had been widened to accommodate the mobs of cattle and sheep the drovers brought through to water at the spring on their way to market and the bullock teams that passed through laden with bales of wool and supplies.

It had been a rough sort of place, especially for the few women settlers, for the itinerant shearers, ringers, bullockies and drovers would come in to drink their wages and fight among themselves before they moved on. The small local tribe of Aborigines had been suspicious of everyone, and very few ventured into town, preferring to keep to the old ways by living in their traditional camp in the bush and often disappearing for months on walkabout.

Gwyneth’s expression was wry as she thought about the changes that had been slowly wrought over the last fifty years. The drovers and shearers still came into town to drink and fight, but it had become quite respectable now, for there were more women, and the sturdier houses that lined the main thoroughfare had picket fences and painted fly-screens.

The simple one-roomed church that stood at the northern end of the street was the same, with a few battered pews and an old kitchen table for an altar. But the vicar no longer had to live in a tent, for a fine house had been built by his parishioners just next door to the cemetery. It was just a shame that the Reverend Algernon Baker, the latest incumbent, was a dour, unsociable man whom no one liked, despite the best efforts of his timid little wife, Frances, and the impish charm of their twin boys. But then that charm often led to trouble, and the boys were fast earning a reputation for mischief.

Gwyneth turned her thoughts to the schoolhouse which sat in the next large plot, and was ably run by young Emily Harris, who lived in the small cottage behind it. The old church hall had long burned down, so the school doubled  as  a dance hall and meeting place at the weekends.

The general store was fronted by a boardwalk shaded by tarpaulins, and further along were several small wooden cottages and a blacksmith’s forge where Charley Sawyer held sway and continued to argue ferociously with his spinster neighbours over his randy old dog. The police station was opposite – though to call it by such a grand name was a little ridiculous, for Jake Webber ran the office from his front room, and the prison cell was a lean-to at the back of the house.

A few Aborigines still followed their traditional ways, but most of them now lived in shacks on the northern edges of the settlement, where the old bush camp had once been. They’d slowly integrated into the community by working as jackaroos and drovers on the cattle stations and, after a great deal of cajoling from Gwyneth, sent their children to the school.

Bert and Sal Davenport who ran the Dog and  Drover hotel, which was handily placed near the church, were not

allowed by law to serve the natives in the pub, but the ever-wily Bert got around this by selling them beer from the back window. Unfortunately this led to some quite serious fights, for the natives had a low tolerance to alcohol, and now the townspeople were beginning to badger Jake to do something to stop Bert. Not that it would do any good, thought Gwyneth with a wry smile, for they’d discovered how to make a lethal hooch of their own from the berries and leaves they foraged from the bush.

She turned her attention back to her home. The original homestead had burned down long ago, and its replacement was destroyed by termites. In their place now stood a sturdy wooden house on concrete pillars which had been topped and tailed with beaten metal to deter the white ants. A veranda ran around the house, offering shade on the hottest day and a relatively cool place to sleep at night behind the fly netting, which had been firmly nailed in place.

Danny and his friend George Blake loved sleeping out there during school holidays, but Gwyneth suspected they often went walkabout at night, and that worried her. The bush was a dangerous place in the dark no matter how well you knew it, and even though they were usually accompanied by their Aboriginal mate, Billy Blue, Gwyneth couldn’t rest easy until she heard them return.

She gave a deep sigh. It was good to have young kids about the place again, for five of her other children had flown the nest years ago and were scattered all over Australia. She rarely saw them, and the only real contact she had was with Bethany’s daughter, Millicent, who’d recently moved to the area with her husband to work on Carey Downs Station.

Hugh, her eldest son, was the only one who’d come back after training as a doctor, but he was in his mid-fifties now, and Gwyneth knew that, despite the Flying Doctors’ Service and

the unstinting help from Jane and Rebecca, he was beginning to find it all too much. There had been some hope that his son, Terence, might perpetuate the family tradition once he’d qualified, but Gwyneth had strong doubts that he would, for she’d met his wife, Sandra, and a woman like that wouldn’t fit in here at all.

Aware that she was wasting time wool-gathering, she nevertheless continued to lean on her walking stick and enjoy the cooling shadows cast by the trees. The garden wasn’t up to much, she thought, as she eyed the ragged tufts of grass, the bare patches of red earth and the encroaching lantana and weeds. It was a far cry from the lush lawns and heavily scented rose garden she could just remember from her childhood – but then this wasn’t Wales, and the amount of rain they’d had these past three years wouldn’t have filled a teacup.

At the thought of tea, she headed back to the house and, as she passed the large birdcage which always sat beside the screen door, she was greeted by her late husband’s sulphur- crested cockatoo.

‘G’day, g’day, g’day,’ he squawked, his bright yellow crest bristling as he bobbed up and down on his perch.

‘G’day to you too, Coco,’ she replied as she replenished his water bowl and fed him a few seeds.

‘Pretty boy, pretty boy. Arrgh.’ Coco shuffled back and forth on his perch, lost his balance and just managed to cling on as he swung upside down and flapped his wings. He was aptly named, for he was a complete clown.

‘You’re just a silly old show-off,’ she muttered affectionately. ‘But I haven’t got time to stand about watching you all day. I’ve got a birthday cake to make.’

She opened the screen door, letting it clatter behind her as she entered the gloomy interior and headed for the kitchen. She’d closed all the shutters to keep out the sun, but she didn’t need light to see where she was going, for she knew every dusty corner of this cluttered house.

Rhys had travelled the world before they’d met, and had been an enthusiastic collector of artefacts and curiosities. Gwyneth regarded them as mostly junk and not worthy of houseroom, but she hadn’t had the heart to get rid of any of it after he’d passed away, and they’d become so much a part of her life she now barely noticed them.

There were warrior shields, spears and shrunken heads from Africa; wooden carvings from India and the South Sea Islands; an elephant tusk, a rhino horn, stone figures from Egypt, and a thousand and one books, magazines, old maps and diaries. Drawers and boxes were stuffed with a plethora of meaningless souvenirs, and his desk remained as cluttered today as it had been on that morning seven years ago when he’d sat back in his old leather chair and fallen asleep for the last time.

Gwyneth wound her way through it all into the kitchen. The range was lit, making the little room like a furnace, and she opened the shutters in the hope there might be a bit of a breeze to cool the place down. As the light poured in she discovered to her dismay that Wally had found his way into her larder and was happily snuffling through her last sack of sugar.

‘You’re a naughty boy,’ she scolded, avoiding his lethal claws and grabbing him by the scruff. ‘No wonder you’re getting so fat.’ She couldn’t help but grin as he eyed her solemnly and continued to lick the sugar from his nose and paws with relish. She carried him to the back door and dumped him on the veranda. ‘Shoo,’ she hissed.

Wally eyed her mournfully and then wandered off in a huff, his bandy legs so pigeon-toed it was a wonder he didn’t trip himself up.

‘Right,’ she said forcefully. ‘Now, perhaps I can get on.’

She returned to the kitchen, her mind busy with plans for the birthday cake. Danny was her delight, and when he was away at school she missed his cheeky smile and his endless questions. But a part of her did wish he was more like John Blake’s boy, for George was a quiet, unquestioning child, who had easily accepted the truth about his father’s demise.

Gwyneth sighed as she weighed out the cake ingredients. She could only hope that Danny’s long absences from Morgan’s Reach, and his friendship with George, would eventually make him see sense, but after the scene Rebecca had described to her earlier she was beginning to have serious doubts – and that worried her deeply.


Excerpted from Firestorm by Tamara McKinley. Copyright © 2013 by Tamara McKinley.
First published in 2014 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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