This is Episode 3 of my ongoing mystery novel Paternity, set in an outback Australian town and sometimes in Sydney. It's the story of Pip, a feisty young journalist out to discover the deepest secret of her dead mother.
Episodes 1 and 2 are in previous posts. Please leave a comment ...
She turned from the barstool and into the embrace of a friendly bear. Frank Rolls had been the chief of staff when Pip served her cadetship. He was a damn good journo, even though too fond of the turps. What was he doing here?
Rolls guided Pip to a table on the other side of the room and a moment later placed a fresh beer in front of her. She nodded thanks.
‘Frank, what are you doing here?’
‘I could say the same for you.’
‘Not a bleeding hearts on the downfall of country towns I hope.’
‘I’ll fill you in. I didn’t make a good start did I?’ Nodding towards Gazza.
Frank shrugged. ‘You couldn’t know that you were sitting on a stool that one of the town’s loopy types calls his own.’
‘So that was it …’
‘Yeah. Gazza has been sitting in that corner every night for fifteen years. It’s the main deal in his life. He gets to the pub at exactly six o’clock, has a rum and beer chaser at the bar and won’t say a word until he’s ensconced on that stool along with a second schooner. Interrupt the routine at your peril. He’s a psychologist’s nightmare.’
‘I wondered what hit me.’
‘I dunno. I think you were doin pretty well. Gazza might have met his match with you.’
Pip grinned: ‘The sizes were a bit uneven don’t you think?’
‘Well … you have put on weight since I saw you last.’
It was comfortable sitting there with Frank. It was a good job he’d shown up. No-one else in the place seemed inclined to help.
‘Anyway, come on. What about you?’
He looked dreadful. The sallow complexion of the confirmed alcoholic, with a beer gut to match, and his chest was as hollow as it could be. Pants baggy around the bum. Frank gave orders for others to get physical. The black head she’d known was now grey around the edges.
He drew himself tall in mockery: ‘I … I am the editor of the local rag.”
He had come a cropper.
‘It’s not such a tragedy. They gave me the heave ho in Sydney … too many long lunches.’
‘Now I can have as many lunches as I like so long as I get one twelve page rag out each week. And I can write some fiction in my spare time. No sweat.’
‘And Flo?’ Flo had been a barmaid in the press bar opposite the daily where they’d worked together. She and Frank had a stormy off-again-on-again relationship for years. You always knew that it was off again when Frank moved into a bedroom at the rear of the bar, and that it was on again when he moved back to their flat.
Frank wagged his head towards a woman walking past, tray of glasses in hand.
‘Well, you old bugger. You won.’ Flo was there all right. Just an older version.
‘Oh I dunno about winning. I’m in one of the rooms upstairs at the moment.’
Sometimes nothing much changes.
The wide staircase leading to the pub bedrooms was elegantly carved, but the carpet was frayed at the edges. Pip shivered as a wayward draught of air whistled down the long narrow hall.
She found Room 22, tossed her bag onto the faded pink chenille spread, and laid her laptop more gently on a starched doily on the oak dressing table. The bed had no backbone, and a matching crockery jug and water basin with a pattern of large red roses stood on a side table.
Half a dozen wire hangers clinked together in the wardrobe. Tobacco smoke wafted from the downstairs bar and insinuated its way along the corridor to impregnate everything in her room.
Reconciled to the lack of home comforts, Pip sauntered down the hall to the communal bathroom, clad in a towelling robe. The shower rose was broken in the first cubicle, and in the second, the plastic curtain clung disrespectfully around her legs. But the water was good and hot and plentiful.
The sun was almost overhead next day when Pip strolled down the street, the strip of tar empty still, and the only sound the cawing of a crow perched on the rusted corrugated iron roof of the grocery shop.
She could feel her jeans too tight around her waist and blamed the pub food and sitting down too long in the car.
There was the newspaper office. Guardian Printers. Pretentious. It all looked too tired to guard anything.
Its shop front windows were stuffed with hundreds of newspaper files, old and brown and curling, tumbling one upon the other. Dust danced in a shaft of light that had followed her in. Here, a large room with a heavy wooden counter and two desks. Chairs with thick legs and padded leather seats. To the right a smaller space with glass in the wall. The sound of machinery behind another door in the back of the office.
This place was a museum … clutter upon clutter. Heavy black phones, typewriters, copy paper stabbed on lethal spikes. Account books, encyclopedia c1958, dictionary. Pots of paste, scissors and steel em rulers. Rubber stamps and slugs of lead. Not a computer in sight.
A bulky woman with a hair bun and a pencil behind her ear was pouring over a pile of long galley proofs at the corner desk. Pip had only seen proofs like this in old photographs.
Frank noticed her from the inner office and yelled.
‘Come in kiddo!’ He nodded towards a substantial looking chair.
Pip whispered: ‘What a scene for a crime novel.’
‘Mmmm … Don’t steal my thunder. Now. What’s with you in this place young Pippin?’
‘I’m on a job. Yeah. But mainly it’s personal. I need your help.’
The ageing newspaper file threatened to crumble as Pip placed it on the desk in a quiet corner of the office. With reverence she smoothed the old yellow-brown paper, and it seemed to respond to the delicacy of her touch.
There was sweat on her palms and she wiped them with a handkerchief. Could these flimsy newspapers hold her mother’s secret?
The Guardian, Friday June 11, 1975. League Hero in Doubt with Groin Injury. Police Blitz Speeding. Bus Trip for Country Women's Association.
Her sister had said that Selene made the trip west soon after her birthday. It would have been later in the month …
She could hear the rhythmic thump of the ancient flat bed press in the back room. Someone answered a phone with muffled voice. A fly buzzed around her abandoned mug of tea. Pip moved through time.
New Portable Classroom for Primary School. Preparations for District Show. Farmer Killed when Tractor Overturns.
She scoured the stories for a clue to her mother’s visit all those years ago. Why was she there? What had happened to change her life?
Friday, June 25. Picnic Races Planned for September. Pioneer Dies Age 100. School Principal Retires after Thirty Years. Three Men Detained in Rape Case.
Rape Case. The story was set in a small panel on page three. There were no names, just a bald police statement. A Sydney woman abducted and pack raped. Three local men being questioned. Police confident charges would be laid.
Pip’s knuckles whitened as she gripped the edge of the desk. She turned more pages. The paper was a weekly …
Next issue a page one spread. The 200pt Bodoni Bold screamed at her — Rape Case: Three Charged.
And there was a faded out-of-focus photograph. A very young version of her mother, cowering on a bench in front of the police station. As though she herself accused.
Pip’s eyes bored into the page, seeking more.
She read the story again and again. Selene O’Rourke 22, a virgin, had been attacked in the main street of the town and dragged off into the bush. The charged rapists were still not named. Talk about lopsided reporting! And no reporter today would dare to be so personal.
Could this be it? Her mind whirled. That would mean … this must be it!
Pip left the newspapers where they lay and walked, stunned, into the silent street. Her mother … raped. Pack raped. Taken into bush land, alone and vulnerable.
Tears were coursing down Pip’s face. She wiped them away with her fists, smudging her cheeks with dust from the old pages.
She drifted down a side street and into a small park. Here she threw herself onto the thin grass beneath a spindly grey gum, and wept.
Eventually the tears gave way to a coldness; a numbness. Pip sat there, still, and for a very long time, cross-legged upon the hard earth. The day was fading and she could see a creamy moon beginning to make its way across the pink and blue sky.
The veil lifted
On a tragic life …
A secret revealed.
Anger spelled out
And blame absolved.
Even so …
New questions raised.
The foregoing is excerpted from Paternity by June Saville. All rights reserved. No part of this novel may be used or reproduced without written permission from the author.
GO TO EPISODE FOUR
What questions does Pip need to answer now? What would you do next? Please let me know what you think in a comment.
More of the story in my next post ...