Currawong Manor by Josephine Pennicott – Extract

Currawong Manor

Prologue

Secrets

Mount Bellwood, Blue Mountains, November 1945

The bush kept its secrets well.

In Currawong Manor’s wild fairytale garden, a statue of a naked goddess, Diana, stood dreamlike, enclosed in the mountain mist. Shadows lengthened as evening crept upon the manor. Diana’s stone body was draped in roses, the yellow-cream, palest pink malmaisons, and crimson mutabilis David Austin petals, all fading in the dusk to an indistinguishable muddy brown. She held her bow and arrow to the sky, proudly guarding her stone folly, her empty eye sockets challenging the stars with detachment. Carved native marsupials and dingoes at her base appeared to be listening to a stray dog’s cries from the woods. The moon was in its dark phase. A dangerous time to be about, some of the old ones at the nearby village of Mount Bellwood might have said. Bush creatures stirred, preparing for the night’s hunting as birds began their twilight calls. A flock of brightly-coloured rosellas swooped across the garden in a dramatic flurry of green, blue and scarlet.

Currawongs with black wings, clawed feet and sharp hooked beaks had been descending on the towers of the manor all day, their lyrical cries ceasing abruptly as they landed. They roosted in a grave, united silence, casting an ominous shadow over the tragic day. The birds had roosted on the towers ever since the manor was built in 1855. Over the years the Mount Bellwood locals had embellished the fact of the birds roosting at the Ruins (as the manor was known) with fantastical speculations – according to these stories, currawongs in vast numbers predicted only one dreaded visitor to the Ruins: death was on its way.

A woman’s scream came from the manor, a chilling sound repeated several times. Indecipherable cries spiked the air. A door opened and the woman emerged, running. She wore a red silk dress and wrap. Shrieking in grief, she fled into the waiting darkness of nearby Owlbone Woods while the birds sat in their eerie, connected silence.

It was a story the train driver, Henry Kelly, was to repeat many times over to anyone who cared to listen. He was on a late run of the Sydney to Lithgow train. He had just had a refreshments stop at Blackheath, and was on his way through Mount Bellwood. As the train came alongside the dark shadow of Owlbone Woods, a woman appeared suddenly out of heavy fog and ran onto the tracks. In a few eternal seconds he registered her white face, mouth open and screaming – a nightmare face with what looked like a red sheet blowing around her. Her final, horrified expression haunted his waking and sleeping moments ever after, her arms reaching out as if she could, through some miracle, push the train away. Even in his nineties, Henry would shake when he recounted the story. Killing Doris Partridge had been the bane of him. He began drinking to try to forget what he had seen, but every night he still woke up bathed in sweat, crying out in terror. And it was all because of that bastard, Rupert Partridge. A man who wrecked so many lives. The ‘devil of Australian art’ he was nicknamed, and an apt term it had proven to be.

It was a weird and sorry business, everyone agreed. Why Rupert had gone missing, or most probably killed himself, over his beautiful little Shalimar, no one ever knew. Rupert’s body had never been found to provide a welcome hint to the mystery. But things had always been strange at Currawong Manor. If folk were wise, they would keep well away from the house and Owlbone Woods – that was what Henry Kelly tried to warn people in his alcohol-fuelled rants, but most of those he harangued couldn’t make head or tail of what the crazy old man was saying. And eventually his children placed him in Katoomba Nursing Home, where his dreams continued, although the medications helped to soothe him somewhat.

Truth, legends, lies and broken dreams – once woven together, they were as impossible to separate or disentangle as mountain mist. But some mysteries and secrets are best left undisturbed. The bush creatures understood that ancient truth.

Night was soft and wise. It wound itself around Diana with her impassive stone face, and embraced the bone-white gum trees. Like ghost sentries the trees stood forever guarding the land, its stories and dreaming impregnating their skinny trunks, their shaggy bark peeling away in rough layers like human skin, exposing their immaculate, virgin, hidden, glowing core, the colour of bone.

The bush kept its secrets well.

1

Funeral of a Flower

Mount Bellwood, Blue Mountains, May 2000

Elizabeth watched the crowd of strangers huddled outside Mount Bellwood’s St Rita’s stone church. She was reluctant to exchange the comfort of her friend’s silver Volvo for the heavy rain outside. And despite privately chiding herself, she was also feeling nervous about meeting the people at the service. One person in particular – Ginger Lawson.

‘What a beautiful little church,’ Fleur said. ‘Spot anyone you know among all those umbrellas?’

Elizabeth scanned the mostly black-clad crowd at St Rita’s open wooden doors, feeling grateful that Fleur had rescheduled her hectic weekend to bring her up to the mountains and accompany her to the funeral of a woman neither of them had met. Kitty Collins had been one of the three famous women known as the Flowers – the scandalous trio of life models that Elizabeth’s artist grandfather, Rupert Partridge, had painted in the 1940s. Today, Kitty was being cremated.

After the funeral, Fleur was going to drive Elizabeth to Currawong Manor, where the Flowers had once lived with the Partridges. Elizabeth was to take up residence there while photographing the manor itself and Ginger Lawson; with Kitty’s tragic end and Wanda suffering from dementia in a Sydney nursing home, Ginger was the last surviving Flower. To photograph one of her grandfather’s muses at his old home was a dream come true for Elizabeth.

A couple of months ago, she had been contacted by Holly Shaw, the current owner of Currawong Manor, inviting her, as Rupert’s granddaughter and an accomplished professional photographic artist herself, to apply for a residency to be the photographer for a lavish coffee-table book that had been commissioned on Rupert’s life models. The publishers were apparently inspired by renewed public interest in the life models of another famous Blue Mountains painter, Norman Lindsay, as depicted in the movie Sirens. (Indeed, when she’d rung Elizabeth out of the blue on that day two months ago, Holly had joked, ‘The main appeal of Norman’s story was Elle Macpherson’s breasts, but ours has a real-life mystery and breasts!’) Titled Flowers of the Ruins, the book was to feature photographs, journals, letters and articles about the three young women who had posed for Rupert in the years and months before the deaths of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Shalimar, and his wife, Doris, in 1945. Two other writers had covered the topic before – one of them Kitty herself – but their books were now out of print. For the first time, too, Ginger Lawson would give her version of life at the manor and the events before the tragic deaths. To Elizabeth’s surprise, Holly told her that Ginger had been the one to suggest that Elizabeth might like to apply to be the official photographer for the project. Up until then, Elizabeth had had no idea that Ginger knew of her existence.

When Holly rang back a few weeks later to tell her that her application had been successful, Elizabeth thought it was the best thing to happen to her for months. Although her work – the distinctive mysterious, dreamlike photographs taken with ‘Linda’, an antique camera passed down from her grandfather – was found in galleries around the country and she had been noted in an influential American art journal as the next Australian artist to watch, since her most recent exhibition and book she had been pilloried by a leading art critic as well as church and community groups, accused of everything from child pornography to being a publicity-seeking ghoul. The exhibition and book, titled The Flesh Bridge, featured not only nudes of young children and the elderly but also images of dead bodies at the morgue. Unsurprisingly, it was the images of the corpses that had attracted the most passionate response from the media and public. Some found the work too disturbing, disgusting and macabre; others enthused over the poetic, honest beauty in the photographs.

‘Are you okay, Liz?’ Fleur’s voice brought Elizabeth back to the present and the rain drumming on the roof. ‘I hope you’ve decided to closet yourself away up here for the right reasons,’ Fleur said bluntly. ‘You’re not simply trying to escape Lois’s embarrassment over The Flesh Bridge publicity?’

Elizabeth groaned at the reminder. ‘You know how my mother hates anything macabre or controversial in my photos. She sees it as some sort of link to Rupert’s work. She doesn’t want to know about anything to do with what happened at Currawong Manor in the 1940s.’ Rupert Partridge was a skeleton in the firmly locked family closet, and Lois would become enraged whenever her daughter showed any interest in him, accusing her of ‘raking up the sordid past’. Elizabeth’s father, Michael, was also forbidden to discuss Lois’s family history, and being an introverted man he was happy to oblige.

‘Liz, I know Lois is so proud of your work and all you’ve achieved,’ Fleur said softly. ‘She’s told me many times over the years how talented you are. It’s just difficult for her to express her emotions because of her upbringing.’ She hesitated before continuing. ‘I imagine I already know the answer, but is she planning on attending today?’

‘Of course Mum isn’t coming. And if she thinks I’m so talented, why doesn’t she show more interest in my work?’ Elizabeth retorted. Her mother had been furious when she found out that Elizabeth was going to Kitty’s funeral. ‘I’ll be staying up there anyway,’ Elizabeth had argued. ‘And I’ve been granted permission to photograph the reception – it’s an important moment for the book. The death of one of Rupert’s Flowers is a major story.’

‘The death of one of the bloody Flowers is not a major story!’ her mother had scoffed. ‘Only in the deluded mind of a narcissist like Ginger Lawson, who thinks the whole country cares that she spent a few months posing nude for some third-rate artist. Don’t give me that look, Elizabeth! I couldn’t give a hoot that he was my father – not that he had any right to the title. He was a third-rate artist and I won’t pretend otherwise to make you happy. Nobody cares about Rupert Partridge apart from you, Ginger, and Holly what’s-her-name, who has more money than sense or taste and is obsessed by arty mysteries.’

‘Mum, when are you going to let the past go?’ Elizabeth had said. ‘My grandfather may have vanished and abandoned you, but that doesn’t make him a third-rate artist! You’re blind to the burgeoning interest in his work.’

But nothing Elizabeth ever said about Rupert made any difference to her mother. The tirade had continued with Lois nagging Elizabeth about putting her career first by travelling so much on assignments while her biological clock was ticking away at thirty-three. And now Elizabeth was letting her down again by accepting the residency at the manor. It made Elizabeth feel like severing all contact with her mother. At least in the mountains there would be a respite from this endless sniping.

Now, seeing Fleur’s dismayed expression, Elizabeth went on more gently, ‘I really do appreciate you giving me a lift. Stop fretting about why I’m staying at Currawong Manor. How do you know it’s not just because of Nick Cash? I’ve always had a thing for a man in leather.’ Elizabeth had been excited to discover that Nick Cash was contracted to work on Flowers of the Ruins with her. Now a true-crime writer with an interest in famous Australian crimes of the 1930s and forties, in the seventies he had played in one of Australia’s favourite bands.

‘Yes, I’m worried about leaving you up in the mountains with him,’ Fleur said teasingly. ‘He does have a reputation as a bit of a player.’

‘You’re as bad as Lois.’ Elizabeth grimaced. ‘I can handle myself with Nick Cash.’

‘Can you see him?’ Fleur asked, peering out through the windscreen again. The funeral guests were blurred flashes of black in the grey half-light of the wintry afternoon, shaking their umbrellas as they entered the church.

‘He won’t be there – he’s arriving later tonight,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Apparently there was some event he had to attend in Melbourne today.’

‘Are you still upset about not meeting Kitty?’ Fleur asked, and Elizabeth shook her head quickly. ‘You mustn’t blame yourself,’ Fleur said, seeing through her. ‘You couldn’t possibly have known the poor woman was about to die, and you had so much going on with the show and those bloody reviews.’

Ever since Holly had telephoned last week with the news of the old woman’s death, Elizabeth had been berating herself for not seizing the opportunity to meet Kitty when she’d had the chance.

A few weeks before, Kitty had contacted her unexpectedly, saying she wanted to discuss ‘with Rupert’s granddaughter’ something of ‘great importance’; at the time, distracted by the venomous response to her exhibition, Elizabeth had barely been able to eat or sleep, and she had put off the elderly woman, a decision she now bitterly regretted. With Kitty’s death, another link to her grandfather had been irrevocably snuffed out. Now, mindful of the fragile connections between present and past, she was looking forward to fi meeting Ginger and collaborating on the book.

‘Let it go, Liz,’ Fleur persisted. ‘Kitty probably didn’t have anything new to tell you. Anyway, you’re never going to know now, so forget about it.’

‘It’s just a bit distressing to think that the beautiful blonde who Rupert once delighted in painting and photographing should end up dying in a backpacker’s hostel in Katoomba,’ Elizabeth said gloomily. ‘Nobody gets out of here alive,’ Fleur pointed out. ‘And Kitty

had a good innings, unlike Shalimar Partridge . . .’

Elizabeth was often surprised by how many people remembered the Partridge case. It seemed to be almost as entrenched in the Australian psyche as the Graeme Thorne murder or the disappearance of the Beaumont children. Even people with little interest in art had a hazy recollection of the name Rupert Partridge, though their notions tended to be sensationalist and often muddled; over the years, she’d been asked: ‘Wasn’t he the devil worshipper who vanished in the bush?’, ‘Didn’t he have orgies with nude models?’ and ‘Wasn’t he in Sirens with Elle Macpherson?’ Still, some people retained a vague knowledge of some of Rupert’s more controversial paintings, such as Trollop, Pigs of War or Bones of the Flower Men, though he was more often confused with Lindsay, a Blue Mountains contemporary.

Elizabeth spotted through the rain the tall, blonde Holly Shaw standing outside the church with her husband, Bob, skulking beside her. ‘There they are,’ she said. ‘Come on, let’s make a dash for it.’

Holly, who shared Elizabeth’s interest in 1940s Australian art, had been born in the Blue Mountains but emigrated to England as a child and spent years running a small but successful art gallery in London. She returned ‘Down Under’ when her son flew the nest, and then discovered through a friend who knew Currawong Manor’s owners that the place was on the market. Holly was now attempting to make money from her acquisition while promoting Rupert’s art. Encouraged by the success of the Norman Lindsay house at Springwood in the lower mountains, she was aiming to remodel the manor along a similar theme. In the grounds she had re-created miniature cabins in the same style as the manor, calling them ‘the Nests’, and was offering residencies for artists, writers and craftspeople who embodied the spirit and traditions of Rupert Partridge in their work.

After Holly’s second phone call, Elizabeth had met the Shaws at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney and listened with increasing enthusiasm to Holly’s vision for Currawong Manor. It was obvious they shared the same dream to resurrect her grandfather’s reputation and place Rupert Partridge alongside the more lauded names of Arthur Boyd, Sydney Nolan and Albert Tucker. Her mother might sneer at Holly’s appreciation of Rupert’s art, but Elizabeth felt moved by the woman’s passion for her grandfather and everything linked to him. Perhaps this was why she felt an immediate connection with the bubbly woman, rather than maintaining her usual detachment and caution towards new people (a photographer’s occupational hazard, she sometimes joked).

Today, Holly was just as personable as Elizabeth had found her on their first meeting – and just as stylish, in black high heels and a black trench coat.

‘Here they are, finally.’ she cried. ‘This must be Fleur – so good to meet you. I hope you’re enjoying our beautiful Mount Bellwood weather.’ Holly grabbed Elizabeth and Fleur, bestowing kisses and hugs in a very un-English way. ‘Blooming heck, I was just saying to Bob it’s a good thing we brought our thermals over. Bob, stop gawping at gorgeous Fleur, close your mouth and shake her hand. Quickly, girls, let’s get inside the church – Ginger’s already here!’

Bob, as taciturn as his wife was extroverted, gave an indecipherable grunt and was whisked indoors in pursuit of Ginger.

Although Elizabeth had met several celebrities in her line of work and was rarely intimidated by them anymore, she felt nervous at the thought of fi meeting Ginger. From scraps of information she had picked up she knew Ginger had worked in early Australian soap operas before migrating to America. While fans of the Flowers tended to favour either Kitty for her angelic looks or Wanda for her sensuality and daring poses, it was Ginger whom Elizabeth had always felt the most drawn to.

In the vestibule of the church, people crowded around an eye-catching figure. Recognising her immediately, Elizabeth studied her with interest. Even now, in her seventies, Ginger was as dynamic and fascinating as her younger, notorious 1940s self: her face, which retained its perfect complexion, was theatrically made-up: her large, almond-shaped green eyes heavily lined with kohl and spiked with false eyelashes, and her full lips painted scarlet. From her ears dangled brightly coloured yellow diamond drop earrings, and her green designer jacket sported an oversized brooch and a brightly patterned scarf. Beneath her jacket she wore a plunging black top which showed off her gravity-defying bust, a leopard-print bra peeking out. Silver bracelets and charms adorned her wrists, and her hennaed hair was gathered up in an elegant chignon fastened with jewelled combs.

‘Thank you, everyone, you’re all so kind,’ she was saying. ‘It’s wonderful to be back at Mount Bellwood.’ Her loud voice made everyone within earshot turn to see the ‘somebody’ among them. Elizabeth itched to photograph the scene. With everyone else clothed in sombre funeral garb, Ginger was a resplendent peacock amid a flock of sparrows.

‘Let’s grab her before she goes in!’ Holly pulled Elizabeth towards Ginger, who stared at them with a haughty air, which softened slightly as she registered who they were.

‘May I introduce you to each other?’ Holly said. ‘Ginger, this young lady is Elizabeth Thorrington.’ Holly’s round blue eyes went expectantly from one woman to the other, as if breathlessly awaiting a reaction. When neither spoke, she continued, more nervously, ‘Elizabeth’s the photographer for Flowers of the Ruins, remember? She’ll be nesting next to you, Ginger. Her mother—’

‘I know who she is. Don’t be a fool, Holly!’ Ginger exclaimed. Her broad Australian accent only hinted at her years in the United States. She shook Elizabeth’s hand in a firm grip that belied her age, her eyes scrutinising Elizabeth’s face closely. ‘Rupert’s granddaughter,’ she said. ‘Yes, I can see him in you.’ Unexpectedly, she whipped out a hot-pink handkerchief and wiped her eyes. ‘Lois’s daughter, so grown up and beautiful. Is your mother here?’

Elizabeth shook her head, and Ginger blew her nose and fanned herself while everyone present gawked at her dramatic display.

‘I did call her, but she refused to speak to me,’ Ginger declared. Then she pointed a black-gloved hand at Fleur, her bracelets and charms clanking. ‘Who’s your blonde pal?’

Elizabeth had been so absorbed by Ginger she had briefly forgotten all about Fleur. Not that anybody could forget Fleur for long, with her classically pretty features and elegant posture. Several guests at the funeral service had been glancing her way, either in recognition or simply admiring her beauty. Fleur was nearly always serene – when her children weren’t using their pester-power on their doting mother. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that she was often unruffled to the point of smugness; after all, she’d had an acclaimed ballet career, and two healthy children, a handsome husband and a boho-chic home at Bondi Beach. Elizabeth often wondered what her friend saw in her. Perhaps, as her mother had sniped, it was a case of opposites attracting: Fleur was blonde, gregarious and optimistic, while Elizabeth, with her shoulder-length brown hair, was more introverted, cautious and pessimistic. But the unlikely duo had struck up a friendship years before, when Elizabeth photographed Fleur in the comic ballet Coppélia for the Sydney Daily. And despite the differences in their temperament and upbringing, Elizabeth knew she could trust her friend.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Elizabeth said now. ‘This is my friend Fleur Amos. She’s here to help me settle into the Nests. Such a cute name for the cabins Holly’s had built, isn’t it? A terrific idea to hold residencies at the manor and help to pay for the renovation work.’ Damn, she was babbling, but Ginger’s narrow gaze made her nervous. Was she mistaken, or did the woman already dislike her? Old insecurities bubbled up in Elizabeth. Growing up with a distant and disapproving mother had made her more sensitive to the approval of other women. Naively, she had hoped that the connection she and Ginger shared with Rupert would have meant something. Or was she simply being paranoid? After all, she reminded herself, it had been Ginger’s wish that she be given the gig. Hopefully she was just being oversensitive or the next few months were going to be hell – as if life wasn’t difficult enough already.

‘I saw you dance years ago, Fleur, at the Opera House. You were wonderfully erotic in Salome.’ Ginger’s voice contained slightly more warmth when she addressed Fleur. ‘I read you had retired when you had your children. Rather a shame you had to put your career aside.’ Elizabeth felt Fleur tense beside her; Holly’s eyes widened at the comment.

‘You’ll have to excuse me.’ Oblivious to their reaction, Ginger rummaged in her Lady Dior quilted handbag and pulled out a set of black rosary beads. ‘I’m going to light a candle, find a pew and say a prayer for poor Kitty. Such a delightful girl Kitty was – the perfect model for Rupert, and a good friend to all. I can still see her blonde curls and cute dimples. She was the prettiest one of us. We all loved our little Kitty. What a disgraceful end for the darling woman. If only I’d known her state of mind and her financial worries! I could have helped.’ She glanced around the vestibule and pursed her red lips. ‘Why on earth her bloody children didn’t help her out more is beyond me. They’ve got a nerve to show their weeping faces here today!’ She dabbed at her eyes again; moved, Elizabeth almost went to place a hand on her arm in comfort, but was too intimidated.

‘First dear Wanda with dementia stuck in some awful nursing home. And now Kitty dying in a seedy hotel. I’m virtually the last surviving Flower.’ Ginger paused, patting herself on her bosom as if congratulating herself. People were openly staring at her and she repeated the comment louder. ‘I’m virtually the last surviving Flower!’, then, her voice changing to a rougher note, she demanded, ‘What the hell is she doing here?’

The others turned to see who Ginger was referring to. Standing behind Elizabeth was a woman who looked to be in her sixties. Although she must have been around ten years younger than Ginger, she dressed like a much older woman, in a black cardigan and unflattering shapeless grey dress, a cloche-style hat of black and purple feathers over her bobbed grey hair. Elizabeth felt her breath catch in her throat and she shivered. It was as if a wing of death had lightly fanned the people gathered for the service.

Animated chatter abruptly ceased. Several of the locals nudged each other as the hush fell over the crowd. There was something bird-like and predatory about the newcomer’s eyes, which had become narrow slits as she stared hard at Ginger. Was Elizabeth imagining the hint of a smile on her face as she coolly returned Ginger’s glare? A goose walking on your grave, Elizabeth’s mother described that eerie, chilling silence. Elizabeth noticed the woman’s large hands clenching and the slight snarl as her lips pursed, disgust on her face as her gaze swept dismissively over the crowd.

‘That’s Miss Sharp, Ginger. Dolly Sharp. The old dollmaker’s daughter. Surely you remember her?’ Holly smiled uncomfortably, fluttering her fingers in greeting at the woman, who ignored her, continuing to stare at Ginger.

Intrigued, Elizabeth looked more closely at the elderly woman. Before her death, Dolly Sharp’s mother had been Rupert and Doris’s housekeeper, and worked for Rupert’s parents before that, but was known locally as the dollmaker. There seemed to be some inexplicable deeper connection between the families, entrenched in a mysterious provision in Rupert’s mother’s will, but Elizabeth hadn’t been able to unearth much information about it.

‘How could I ever forget her?’ Ginger snapped. ‘Keep her well away from me or she’ll get my tongue! Now, I’m going to light a candle!’ And with that she stormed off, leaving Holly, Elizabeth and Fleur looking at each other in stunned silence.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Holly apologised to Elizabeth and Fleur. ‘It must be the funeral upsetting Ginger. She’s normally so sweet.’

I shouldn’t have come, Elizabeth thought, and recalled againher mother’s anger when she discovered Elizabeth was going to Kitty’s funeral. No doubt Lois was right – about all of it. No good would come of her returning to this place where such terrible things had happened to her family.

‘Okay?’ Fleur touched her arm lightly. The concern in her friend’s eyes smote Elizabeth, and she told herself sternly to get it together. In spite of its dark past, these days Currawong Manor was surely a tranquil haven, a million galaxies away from Lois and Sydney.


Excerpted from Currawong Manor by Josephine Pennicott. Copyright © 2014 by Josephine Pennicott.
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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