A woman longing for freedom, a man longing for a home. Can the magic of Christmas bring them together?
It’s 1890. Lizzie Naylor’s life is working in her grumpy father’s store in Munyup, trying to bring up her six-year-old daughter, Alice, who’s hellbent on finding herself a father. Christmas is nearing, and tempers are fraught, especially when mysterious Mr Nicholas is back with his pesky sidekick, Alf. Or Elf, as Alice calls him. And Elf is just about to make another big mistake.
Mack Miller has returned to the district to make peace with his brother, Shep. He’s weary of the life he’s led, the loss he’s experienced. He’s longed for home for a while, but the family farm had been a contentious issue between the brothers, and Shep and he have not spoken for years.
When Alice is quite taken with Mack, she tells him he’s a suitable contender for the role of being her father. But then someone from her mother, Lizzie’s past appears, and terrible trouble erupts. Alice is snatched away.
Lizzie will do anything to have her back, Mack will do anything to find her, and Elf must redeem himself.
Can Christmas, new to the town and its folk, work its special magic?
Lizzie Naylor held her hands over her ears. ‘Boys. Boys!’
Futile. The shouting was loud and boisterous. Noise bounced off the timber walls of the store and rolled along the shelves high up behind the long hardwood counter. It clattered onto creaky floorboards scuffed by innumerable great men’s leather boots and ladies’ shoes.
Even the meagre season’s decorations that she’d pinned on the shelves, her handmade fabric baubles in bright reds and greens, with their (very expensive) gold threads that dangled, seemed to shiver in dainty offense.
Customers would be frightened off. She darted a look outside and sure enough, pedestrians with their baskets, their children in tow, their footsteps clattering on the veranda, paused to listen. Men on horseback riding through the town bent in their saddles to peer inside the shop window.
‘We got Jenny,’ Ellery Miller yelled, red in the face and stomping mad. ‘You got no ma, Petey Morgan.’
‘That Jenny’s not your ma. Your pa took on ol’ Mr Wickley’s missus,’ Petey bellowed, and gave Ellery a shove. ‘An’ you know he was a water stealer before he was dead.’
Mr Robbins, the owner of the Munyup General Merchandise Store, emerged from the back room. He flapped his apron to fan himself then mopped his ruddy face with it, quick little dabs to soak up the sweat that had popped.
‘Mrs Naylor,’ he thundered. ‘What is going on here? Wait a minute,’ he said, and pointed. ‘Is that you, young Miller, and you, young Morgan? Oh, bother. Look out, young miss.’ He’d had to step around a little girl who looked up at him, very serious and very solemn.
The boys shut up fast. Both ducked their heads.
‘What have I told you about brawling like mad bulls in my shop? You’re not out in the blasted paddock now, you know.’
Lizzie bit her lip at the stern language and held out her arms, offering refuge to the girl.
‘Over here, Bidge.’
She gave the other customer in the shop, a Mr Nicholas, an apologetic smile. He was bent over her box of handiwork, bows and ribbons, and smiling. A pleasant enough fellow who had the habit of turning up only at this time of year, and he was all for Christmas. So strange for a gentleman.
Not that she had anything against celebrating Christmas; she loved the idea, tried hard to have it catch on in the town. Mr Nicholas made it so easy to be jolly in the season.
Mr Robbins kept up his tirade. ‘Too damnable hot to have fool lads like you two blathering up the place with a load of hot air over nothing,’ he rang out.
‘Yeah, but Mr Robbins—’
‘Enough outta you,’ Mr Robbins growled at Petey Morgan. ‘Mrs Naylor, usher these so-called young gentlemen out of the store.’
Ellery Miller was stricken. ‘But Mr Robbins, I was gonna buy my ma somethin’ for Christmas—’
‘Yer step-ma,’ Petey interjected.
‘Yer just jealous.’ Ellery turned to the storekeeper. ‘Mr Robbins, I got a penny—’
‘What yer gonna buy with that, Ellery Miller, a bag o’ dirt?’ Petey’s sneer was a dour twist.
‘Hey, hey, hey. What’s all this?’ A man, tall, dark-haired and craggy faced, with, to Lizzie’s eye, somewhat familiar features—nevertheless a stranger—was in the midst of the furore.
Lizzie hadn’t noticed him enter the store, but he certainly commanded a presence. He demanded the attention of both boys who stopped in their tracks to look up at him. She did notice that Mr Nicholas had straightened. His bushy white beard, which was around an ever-growing toothy smile, was falling over his protruding belly.
‘Are you all right, Mr Nicholas?’ she whispered across to him, her arms still around the girl.
‘Oh, yes,’ he said, jolly as you like. ‘Thank goodness, for a moment I thought it was that daft Elf come back.’
‘Alf?’ Lizzie asked.
‘ELF,’ the girl at Lizzie’s side shouted, and bounced on her feet.
‘Yes, yes, Bidge,’ Mr Nicholas said. Then muttered, ‘Fool of a … lad.’ He beamed another big grin. ‘But no, this fellow here is nothing like Elf,’ he confided. Mr Nicholas looked to be sizing up the stranger from top to toe. The man hadn’t noticed Mr Nicholas’s big front, the cherry-red cheeks and the huge grin. ‘Well, well, well, Mack Miller, you got here first. Well done,’ he said, so low as if only to himself.
The stranger gave Mr Nicholas a curious glance then. ‘I’m sorry, we’ve not met, have we?’
Mr Nicholas kept up his beaming, and a light poured into the store. ‘So very pleased to see you. Oh yes, I am. And I’m, er, Bob—’
‘ELF,’ Bidge cried again, starting to jiggle, and turning this way and that.
‘Shush now, Bidge,’ Lizzie said. ‘Why don’t you go play with Alice, she’s out the back with her dolls.’ Lizzie’s daughter, Alice, and Bidge were classmates at Munyup’s school.
‘Not if Mr Nicholas says Elf is around,’ Bidge said, her jaw set. ‘ALUUUUSS,’ she yelled. ‘Elf has COME BACK.’
To Lizzie’s knowledge, Alice had never met Alf. But ever since her daughter’s father Charlie had disappeared not long after Alice’s birth, anything that kept Alice happy was all right with Lizzie, real or not.
Lizzie had only heard about Alf a few times since this time last year. Ellery always mentioned him when talking about the dam he’d ‘busted’ … single-handedly, of course. Everyone knew that Jenny Wickley’s former husband had been water hoarding on his property before he died. But Howard Wickley’s widow had made good: releasing water from the anabranch back to its natural flow with the help of grateful townsfolk—and a mysterious, never seen team of bullocks in the night that Mr Nicholas had been known to call ‘dears’.
Strange man, sometimes. Always happy, too. Who on earth could always be happy, in this day and age?
Ellery’s pa, Shep Miller, had been the beneficiary of more than Jenny’s goodwill. Everyone was happy for them, and there was soon to be a public celebration, even though they had been wed in a registry office for some months now.
It was Bidge who kept the Alf myth alive for Alice. Bidge had been fair taken with him—and when pressed, so was Mr Nicholas, in his way. According to Bidge, Alf worked for him and was a bit of a handful, and was always mentioned by the children. The pair were only ever spotted around town coming up to December for some reason, just the hottest month before the new year.
Alice burst from behind a curtain that separated Mr Robbins’s shopfront from the work area. ‘Elf, Elf, Elf,’ she chanted, running to Bidge and the pair set about twirling.
‘Girls, girls, come along. Stop that.’
A sudden silence fell and all four children stood in a huddle. Bidge was staring at the newcomer. Alice stared, too.
The tall, fine-looking stranger (now, now, Lizzie Naylor) bobbed down on his haunches in front of them. ‘Boys, I’m pretty sure making a racket in a store is not the done thing.’
Ellery was staring at him, open-mouthed.
‘Who might you be, sir?’ Mr Robbins asked.
The man stood. ‘MacKenzie—’
‘What can I do for you, Mr MacKenzie?’ Mr Robbins found himself distracted. ‘Ellery, your mouth is open.’
Everyone looked at Ellery. His mouth was indeed open. Stayed open.
‘Ellery,’ Bidge, his sister, whispered, and gave him a nudge. ‘You got a dribble.’
The man looked from Bidge to Ellery, whose mouth was still agape.
‘Flies,’ the man said with a grin, reminding the boy why he should close his mouth. ‘Ellery, is it? I’m very pleased to meet you again, young sir. You look well grown up.’
Ellery took the hand proffered. ‘Pleased.’ He shook the hand absently, still staring.
‘Ellery, c’mon,’ Petey said to him. ‘Let’s go. We can come back later for a lolly.’
Ellery backed out, Petey dragging him by his shirtsleeve.
The man looked at the child wringing her hands in Lizzie’s skirt. ‘And, you must be that lad’s sister, then,’ he said. ‘I can’t be mistaken there.’
‘Bidge,’ the girl offered, her mouth dropping open again. ‘You look like my pa,’ she said.
‘Do I?’ His brows rose. ‘Well, I’m pleased to meet—’ He staggered dangerously close to the little girl. He shook his head, squinted hard before his hands shaded his eyes.
Lizzie snatched Bidge out of his way, and Alice fled behind them.
‘Something the matter, Mr MacKenzie?’ Mr Robbins asked, rushing to take the man’s elbow, steadying him.
‘Damnedest thing. Apologies, miss, language,’ he said, a quick smile in Lizzie’s direction. ‘I just had flashes of brilliant light before my eyes, reds and greens. Very bright.’
‘ELF,’ Bidge squealed abruptly, long and loud, and thrust away from Lizzie. ‘ELF, where are you?’ She darted to the corner of the shop where all the men’s shirts were stacked, tossing each one in the air. Alice didn’t quite know what to do.
Mr Robbins was beside himself. ‘Bridget Miller,’ he grumbled. ‘Tidy up your mess at once.’
Lizzie bent to meet the stranger’s eye as he staggered against Mr Robbins. ‘Can I get you something, a cup of water, Mr MacKenzie?’ she asked,
‘It’s Miller,’ the man said. ‘MacKenzie Miller. Mack, they call me.’
Bob Nicholas sucked in a breath, and a wide grin split his features. His barrel chest seemed to grow, as did the twinkle in his eye. He threw a delighted smile at a startled Lizzie. ‘How about that,’ he said to no one in particular, before beaming at the newcomer again. ‘I must tell that rogue, Elf. I won the bet.’
‘Miller?’ Mr Robbins asked the man. ‘You’re a Miller?’
‘Aye,’ the man said, groggy, and clearly not sure what to make of Mr Nicholas. ‘You’d all know my younger brother. Shepley Miller. Shep, he’s known by.’
The Drover’s Brother Comes Home For Christmas will be available from the 1st of October 2023