A delightful small town story of community and family with shades of Romeo and Juliet and The Dressmaker.
Two households, both alike in dignity…
Aunt Alice Dwyer loves her small Australian town. She’s rarely left its comforting embrace. She knows everyone in it; in fact, she’s related to most of them. All she wants is to keep her family safe and the town running exactly the way it always has. Her way. But when an exotic French artist comes to town, her hold begins to weaken…
Lucienne Chevalier, once the toast of Europe, has come to Nyringa after a tragic loss to hang up her sequins and create a place for her circus family to rest between tours. With her is Simon, her grandson, recovering from an injury so damaging he can no longer perform. Lucienne fears he’ll never embrace a new future. That is, until she notices the chemistry between him and the new schoolteacher… All they need is a push.
Both grande dames think they know what’s best, but with equal amounts of stubbornness on both sides, peace looks unlikely. Then a relationship between Alice’s rebellious great-niece and a teenage acrobat sets the two communities on a collision course. But when the bakery starts making patisseries over lamingtons, the battle lines are truly drawn…
A story of community and family. Of the love that brings them together … and the fears that would tear them apart.
Nyringa, New South Wales
Alice gave a twirl as she closed the wooden gate behind her and turned towards the centre of town. Her grandmother’s welcome cake had been safely delivered to the new teacher and now she was free for the rest of this special day. The circus was coming to town for the first time ever and she didn’t want to miss any of the excitement. She started walking more quickly. Wayne was going to be there too, and they’d watch the parade together. After-wards they might slip down to that spot by the creek. That thought was enough to send a little tingle through her. Granny didn’t hold with fifteen-year-old girls having boyfriends, but Alice was almost sixteen, and Wayne was her boyfriend. They’d been going steady now for nearly three months. Yesterday he’d slipped his hand under her blouse while they were making out down by the creek. She’d told him off of course, because she didn’t want to seem easy or a tramp like that Suzie at school—Suzie went with anyone and girls like that never got married. But next time Wayne was with her down by the creek, Alice would let him touch her breasts. Maybe even today. After the parade, though. She’d never seen a circus before.
Alice was determined to find a place at the front so she could see the parade up close. According to Granny, Nyringa was going to be more crowded today than ever before in the town’s history, and Granny would know because she was ancient and had lived in this boring little town forever. Then tomorrow, the circus was going to do a show. She’d go with Wayne and wear the new yellow dress her mum had made for her. She’d talked her mother into taking the hem up another couple of inches, and she wanted to see what Wayne did when he saw her in it.
Alice heard a low rumble of noise coming from the main street, and then a cheer went up. The circus must be here already. She was late. She broke into a run and sprinted along the last row of houses, past the car park at the back of the store and into the crowd lining the main street, where the highway passed straight through the centre of town. Her mouth dropped open and she skidded to a stop.
Elephants! There were elephants in Nyringa.
They were big and grey and slow, swinging their trunks as they walked. Their skin looked like old leather, and their eyes seemed too small for such a big animal. Their feet though … their feet were huge. Imagine if one of them stood on you! All four creatures were adorned with brightly coloured headpieces and a man sat on each one, waving to the crowd. Alice waved back as she pushed her way forward. Her friend Martha had been to the cinema once in New-castle. She’d seen a film with elephants in it and bragged about it for weeks. But this was better. These elephants were real! And they were so big! Alice felt a tiny frisson of fear that was exciting in its own way.
‘Alice!’ Wayne appeared next to her and grabbed her hand. He looked down at her, his whole face alive with excitement. ‘Aren’t they great?’
She nodded, too tongue-tied by everything to speak.
‘Look, Alice. Look at the jugglers.’
Men wearing embroidered white shirts moved along the edge of the crowd, tossing small balls into the air with speed and precision and never dropping a single one.
‘I could do that.’
The nearest juggler heard Wayne’s words.
‘Here you go, kid.’ The man threw him a ball. ‘Now try two. Like this.’ The juggler tossed two balls into the air and kept them aloft with just one hand. He wasn’t even really looking as he did it.
‘Sure.’ Wayne threw a ball in the air. Then a second. He caught one but the other bounced at his feet. The juggler swooped in to catch it with one hand and added it to his one-handed display.
‘Good try, kid.’ The juggler took the second ball from Wayne’s hand and moved on.
‘I would have done it next time,’ Wayne muttered.
‘Of course you would.’ Alice took hold of his hand again and squeezed it. Wayne laced his fingers through hers and smiled down at her. For a moment Alice forgot the elephants and saw a future in which she and Wayne left Nyringa behind for good, and went out into the world. They would marry and have children one day, of course, but not before they had explored the whole world.
‘Look, here come the horses!’
Alice followed Wayne’s pointing finger. She loved horses. Most of the other girls in her class lived on farms and had their own ponies and horses. Living in town, Alice didn’t have a pony. Every year since she was small she’d asked her parents for one for her birthday and for Christmas, but they never listened. The horses coming towards her were more beautiful than any she’d seen on the farms around Nyringa. They were all grey, with soft white manes and tails. Their harness glinted with silver as they tossed their heads. They didn’t seem at all disturbed by the cheering people lining the street.
Then Alice saw the girl sitting sideways on the back of the lead horse. She was dressed in a tight pink costume like a bikini and a tiny skirt covered in sequins. She was wearing white ballet slippers and tights. There were jewels in her wavy blonde hair and dark mascara and shadow on her eyes, making her look very exotic. Granny would not have approved. As Alice watched, the girl stood on her horse’s back and opened her arms to the crowd, who cheered loudly. Beside Alice, Wayne was cheering loudest of all. His eyes were shining and his attention was now entirely on the girl. He was ignoring everything else around him, including Alice. His fingers loosened in hers and their hands fell apart as he moved to get a bet-ter look at the girl on the horse, who suddenly leaped into the air in a graceful move that was almost like ballet, landing again on the horse without so much as a stumble. All around Alice, the crowd gasped and cheered even louder.
‘The parade is nearly over.’ Alice grabbed Wayne’s hand and tugged at it. ‘I have to get back soon. Why don’t we go down to the creek and sit for a while?’ She opened her eyes really wide and looked up at him through her eyelashes, because that’s what the actresses did in the films, and everyone thought they were so sexy. Right now, Alice wanted to be sexy more than anything else in the world.
‘I want to follow the parade,’ Wayne said. ‘I’ll see you later.’
Never taking his eyes off the girl on the white horse, Wayne again pulled his hand away from hers and began to follow the parade.
Alice looked down at her empty hand. How could Wayne just leave her like that?
She felt a strange pain in her chest, like nothing she had ever felt before. It felt as if her heart was breaking.
‘The classroom layout is very different, as you can see, Miss Walker. It works better this way with the age range.’
Meg nodded. Everything about this school was different from the places she’d taught in Sydney. The desks were arranged in small squares, there wasn’t a computer to be seen and the view outside the windows was just the dry yellow grass of a big oval surrounded by tall gum trees. The whole school was a single wooden building containing three classrooms, only two of which were being used for classes; the third was a combination store room and staff room. There was no library, gym or assembly hall. There were no lockers for the students, nor was there a lockable cabinet for the teacher. The gate she’d passed through when this tour began was only waist height and there were no security cameras. She wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a cause for concern. This place was about as far as she could get from the inner-city schools she’d previously taught at. The schools where she had discovered her love of teaching—and then lost it again.
‘Each group of tables represents a class year. You have grades seven to twelve. A lot of the older kids go off to boarding school, if their parents can afford it, so the groups are quite small,’ Meg’s tour guide said. ‘I have quite a few more kids in the primary classroom.’
Meg nodded again. Her new colleague Anna was doing every-thing she could to make her feel at home. But she no longer felt at home in the classroom and wondered if she ever would again. This two-teacher school was very different to anywhere she’d taught before, but that wasn’t what she was struggling with. She tugged the right sleeve of her blouse down over her wrist as she told herself everything would be different this time.
The Nyringa school had about forty pupils split between primary and secondary classes. As she was taking the senior classes, she was, in effect, the headmistress of this tiny institution. She wasn’t sure if she wanted the title, but she did want the job.
‘We’re so lucky you could join us for this term on such short notice, Miss Walker.’ Anna beamed. ‘Your predecessor left quite suddenly. Family matters.’
‘Please, call me Meg. Tell me about the kids.’
‘You must call me Anna. Some of our kids are from here in town but most are from nearby properties. There’s a bus run every morn-ing and afternoon that brings those kids in and takes them home. Attendance is good—there’s not exactly much to tempt the kids to play truant around here.’
‘I guess not.’ Meg hadn’t seen much of the town yet, she’d only arrived an hour ago. She had a couple of days to settle in and, on Monday, she would be standing in front of students again. She took another glance around the room, and it occurred to her that, as she moved between the desks, her back would be turned to one group while she attended to another. She felt her stomach churn and fought down her reaction. It would be fine. She could make it work. She had to. Because if she couldn’t teach here, she would never teach anywhere, ever again. And if she couldn’t teach, she didn’t know what she would do.
‘Perhaps we should go to the cottage now,’ Meg said quickly. She’d come back to the classroom tomorrow and spend some time here alone. She could maybe change a few things or add some per-sonal touches to make it seem like she belonged. To make it feel as though this was a safe place. But right now she needed to be some-where else, where the screams in her head were not so loud and she could breathe again.
‘Yes, of course.’ The other teacher waved her hands around. ‘How stupid of me. You must be tired and you’ll want to settle in. All this could have waited until tomorrow.’
‘It’s fine, honestly. It’s good to get a feel for the school.’
‘Come on. I have the keys to the cottage.’
The school teacher’s cottage was tucked away in a corner of the school grounds, set well back from the classrooms. It was one of those small wooden houses so common in towns like this. Set on stumps, it had the tiniest veranda and a peaked iron roof. It didn’t have a garden worth the name, just a few native bushes and a sparse area of what might be called lawn in a better year, if one was being generous. One narrow gate led to the schoolyard and a second larger gate to the road. Meg’s car, packed with cardboard boxes and suitcases, was parked in the driveway. Meg followed Anna up the short flight of stairs to the solid-looking front door.
‘This lock is a bit tough,’ Anna said. ‘We probably should get someone to come and take a look at it. To be honest, around here a lot of people don’t both too much about locking their doors.’ She was so busy fighting with the lock, she didn’t notice the way Meg tensed at her words.
At last, the door swung open. Meg stepped into a large, pleasant room. One window looked towards the school, the other towards a line of trees that Meg guessed was the creek shown on the town map she’d printed from Google. The room was furnished with a large sofa, bookshelves and a coffee table. There was even a television. In the middle of the ceiling, a fan awaited the start of the really hot weather. On the other side of the room was a small kitchen with a breakfast bar. It looked quite modern. Through the open door at the back of the room she could see a small hallway. That would lead to the bedroom, bathroom and laundry.
‘I hope this will be all right for you,’ Anna said hesitantly. ‘I guess compared to what you had in the city, it’s a bit …’
‘No. No. It’s fine. Thank you,’ Meg assured her. And it really was fine. The last thing she wanted was a place that in any way reminded her of the city and what had happened there. ‘Thank you so much. I guess I should start getting settled in.’
‘Yes. Of course. It’s just so nice to have a new person to talk to. You know where the shop is, right? You must have seen it as you drove in. But if you find yourself stuck, we live just a couple of streets away. You have my number. If there’s anything I can do …’
‘Thank you. That’s very kind of you.’ Meg held out her hand for the keys.
‘Yes. Well …’ Anna handed over the keys and, with many more offers of help, left.
Meg closed the door behind her with a sigh. She leaned against it for a few seconds, then spun and turned the key in the lock. Then she checked the rest of the house. The windows all had old but functioning locks. So did the back door. Like the kitchen, the bathroom appeared to have been recently refurbished. She looked at the double bed in the bedroom and told herself things would be different here. She would sleep well in that big, comfortable-looking bed.
She heard the distant cry of a crow and glanced at the window. It was already late afternoon. She needed to bring her things inside and then she’d have to do some shopping at the store. If she got to work now, she should have it all done before dark. She could ring her parents back home in Sydney, and unpack her boxes and suitcases after that—when she was safely inside and the doors were locked.