Stephanie Marshall is a nurse with a passion for baking, who has reached a turning-point in her life. Her grown-up sons have left home, her ex-husband wants to sell their house and then her beloved mother Sarah Jane dies, leaving Stephanie on her own for the first time in her life. While packing up the family home, Steph finds some photos of her youthful parents, and realising how little she knows of her mother's past and unsure what to do with the rest of her life, she sets off on a quest to find some answers. Quitting her job and leaving Melbourne behind, the trail takes her to Woolshed Bay, a small coastal town in rural South Australia, where she finds more questions than answers. Why is the elderly Anne Benson, matriarch of the pioneering Pascoe family, hell-bent on driving her out of town? Why did her mother lie about her background? And why was she written out of her family's history? Steph's feeling of belonging helps her overcome the hostility she encounters, as she embraces new opportunities and a chance at true love. When her son, Liam joins her in Woolshed Bay, his physical resemblance to one of the Pascoe clan is impossible to ignore. As Anne Benson's secret unravels, a tragedy more than half a century old is revealed and the power of her bitter regrets to influence the present is exposed. Stephanie and Liam are not the only ones set free by the truth, as they are embraced by the community. As they find friends and family, a future and true love, Stephanie feels an abiding sense of having found home.
Marie wasn’t one bit surprised when Liam confided in her about Simmo’s broken heart.
“Sure, I know he’s carrying a torch for her. Anyone can see that. Did you really not see it, Liam?” She studied the troubled expression on his handsome face, with affection.
“Well I did ask Horse if there was any history there, but he–”
“Horse! Really, Liam. Horse is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. That’s why he’s named after a big animal with–”
“No, Marie,” interrupted Liam. “He’s called Horse because he’s got a really big–”
“Yes, Liam, apparently what’s between his legs is bigger than what’s between his ears and therefore, I rest my case.”
Liam had been giving her a crash course in manning the till, taking orders and generally assisting with running Betty-Lou, in the event that they got busy enough for him to require back up. It was after closing time, so they had the foreshore to themselves, as they settled side by side, at the only table not packed away, for a last coffee before locking up.
“I’ll come down on the weekend mornings then, Liam and help out if you’re busy. I think I’ll get the hang of it. Not sure that I want to learn the coffee making yet though.”
“Thanks, babe. But I don’t want you wearing yourself out. You need your weekends off, after a week in the classroom.”
“Oh phooey! A change is as good as a holiday and it’s a good way to spend time together. The only way, actually!”
“I wish Simmo could be as lucky as I am,” he said, turning to give her a warm, coffee -flavoured kiss. “Do you think he should go after Melissa?” he asked her. “He seems convinced he’s too late.”
“He is too late. You’ve seen her with Dan. They’re deeply in love and make a great couple. I know Simmo’s a great mate, but, Liam, he needs to grow up. He still lives with his parents. His mum does his washing and packs his lunch, for God’s sake. Mel wants a proper relationship with a guy who wants what she wants.”
Liam gazed out at the boats bobbing in the bay. “How do you know all this?”
“Mel and I have talked. She went out with him for a while. They slept together. He wasn’t the one for her. And Liam, it’s not too much to ask for; to find someone who makes you strive to be a better person. Dan does that for her. They do it for each other.”
“That’s what we do, isn’t it?” he said, wonderingly, pulling her close. “I feel like the world is a better place when I’m with you. Everything is brighter and clearer and a whole lot more marvellous.”
Steph had some food for Vera, but as rain was forecast, she decided to take the car and only a short distance past the old school ruins, she came upon the scene of an accident. Several cars had stopped and she could see some men dragging a body away from what appeared to be an over turned tractor. As she parked and crossed the road, she was relieved to see the victim’s limbs moving, but relief turned to shock as she saw the man twitching and writhing in what to her practised eye looked like a seizure. As they lowered him to the ground an older man grabbed hold of the victim and attempted to force a flat object into his mouth.
“Stop!” she cried. “Stop. Don’t do that. Let go of him.”
The men turned in surprise and she recognised some familiar faces.
“Thank God. It’s Stephanie Marshall. She’s a nurse,” one of them explained. “Let her have a look first.”
The other three men stood back as Steph took in the scene, quickly scrambling to her knees to assess the fitting man, whose eyes were rolled back in his head and who was rapidly turning blue.
“It’s Richard Swain,” one of them told her. “We’ve rung the ambos.”
Steph did a quick assessment of the victim. Apparently unconscious, no other injuries evident, but breathing noisily now and thankfully, spontaneously. She loosened his shirt, rolled him onto his side in the left lateral position and placed her windcheater under his head.
“Who found him and when?”
“We did, we were all coming back from the footy in Kadina,” said one of the young men she recognised as a friend of Liam’s. “The tractor was still running and Richard was on the ground having some sort of fit; about twenty minutes ago wasn’t it, guys? Must have only happened just before we arrived. We dragged him away from the tractor just now, ‘cause we noticed there’s diesel spilt. Was that alright?”
“And then we came along almost straight away and I was just trying to get this into his mouth. That’s what you do when someone’s having a fit,” explained the older man, as he showed her a piece of cloth rolled into a wad. Meanwhile his wife hovered nearby relaying details to the ambulance service. “So if you don’t mind, that’s our priority, come on lads, roll him onto his back and hold him steady.”
“Stop, no,” said Steph again. “That’s the worst thing you can do. He might choke or give your fingers a bite. Leave him on his side please and could someone get the blanket out of my car. We need to keep him warm.”
“She’s right, Don,” said his wife holding her phone aloft. “The local boys are on the phone to the Medstar crew and we’re not to put anything in his mouth. We’re to lie him on his side, like the lady said and keep him warm.”
“Tell them he’s been fitting and non responsive for possibly more than twenty minutes please,” said Steph. “He’s critically ill and needs to be moved to a big hospital as soon as possible.” She spoke into the phone as the woman held it for her and gave a run down of Richard’s condition. “No,” she answered. “No obvious sign of a head wound, although a head injury is the obvious conclusion since he was found on the ground next to a tractor roll over. He’s almost continually fitting and he’s not a good colour. We need to get him out and fast.” She listened briefly then looked up. “They’re sending a helicopter retrieval, so how about you blokes get that fence down,” suggested Steph. “As far as I can see, the chopper will have to land in the paddock there.”
“Good thinking,” said one of the lads, heading for the tool box on the back of his farm ute, as Steph continued to monitor Richard’s airway, conscious state, respirations and pulse. When he stopped fitting intermittently, she would try to rouse him, then apply jaw support so that his tongue would drop free of his airway and his breathing and colour would improve briefly. Until the next round of jaw clenching and violent jerking resumed. She flipped a corner of the blanket over his groin as urine soaked warmly through his trousers. There was not a lot more she could do for him.
To everyone’s relief, flashing lights and spraying gravel heralded the arrival of the ambulance from Kadina, followed soon after by one from Wallaroo and the SES truck from Woolshed Bay. Steph gave a handover to the ambulance crew, while the SES crew assisted with taking the fence down and prepared to right the tractor. The police arrived to secure the road and direct the traffic and the ambulance crew followed the instructions relayed to them by the retrieval team, as it flew towards them across the gulf from Adelaide.
By the time the welcome thrum of the medical retrieval was heard, Richard had been given some intravenous medication to stop the seizure activity and some oxygen had improved his colour. However, as he was still unresponsive, the medical team’s swift but efficient assessment, was followed by an equally smooth and fast evacuation. Steph retreated from the noise and the swirling dust and debris of the helicopter’s take off and leaned against her car, watching with huge relief as it lifted, hung in the air above them, then turned and clattered off over the paddock and out over the sea. Don, full of his own importance, spoke to the police, while his wife, retreated thankfully to their car, after first exchanging supportive words with Steph. The young guys, while, clearly enjoying the drama of the occasion, the emergency services, the police interviews and the helicopter retrieval, took the time to give Steph a hug, for which she was exceptionally grateful, shaken as she was by the drama. She didn’t wait to speak to anyone else, or hear all the discussion taking place in the gathering crowd, about what had happened and why Richard was driving along the steep road verge in such an old tractor. The delivery to Vera forgotten, Steph drove slowly home and lay down on her bed for a rest–
So it was at the pub that night that Liam heard how his mum had become a hero.
“You should have seen her, Twin. She just took command. Sorted out that dickhead Don Nicholson who thinks he knows everything,” said Dingo, one of the lads who’d been at the scene and who went on to describe the events, enjoying being the centre of attention.
“And it was Richard Swain? Is he going to be alright?” Liam asked.
“Aunty Frances is driving over to Adelaide with Lizzie and the girls. Poor old Mum has to look after Aunty Anne. Richard’s awake now but pretty out of it, so they don’t know,” explained Simmo.
Marie whispered in Liam’s ear before slipping out the door to go and check on Steph. Letting herself into the unit, she tiptoed to Steph’s room where she found her fast asleep on top of the covers, still fully clothed. She carefully slipped off Steph’s shoes and gently covered her with a blanket, before tenderly kissed her cheek and then left her in peace.
When she returned to the pub, the beer was flowing and the story of Richard’s accident and rescue was told and retold, embellished generously as it was passed on to the next new arrival. By the time the other lads, who had witnessed the scene, arrived, they scarcely recognised the event described and strangely, no one was in the least bit interested in the truth. There was no way anyone was going to let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Chapter Twenty One
Richard Swain was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which accounted for the seizures as well as the headaches, moodiness and confusion. The bump to his head, occurring when he miraculously survived the tractor roll over, of which he had no recall, had triggered a small bleed in the tumour, causing the fitting. The brain tumour may otherwise have remained undetected until too late, given Richard’s reluctance to get checked out at the doctor’s. Surgery was successful, but follow up was needed, entailing radiotherapy and rehabilitation. The Swains and Bensons, the Elliots, Simmons, Greens and Gibsons and all the good citizens of Woolshed Bay in fact, divisiveness and small-town resentments set aside, rejoiced at the news. Some gave thanks to God, others to the medical and emergency services, some to Lady Luck and good karma and some even to Stephanie Marshall for her quick and decisive action.
Once Frances had orientated Lizzie and the girls to coping with the unfamiliar world of a big city, public transport and technology, the four of them took turns in staying with Richard in Adelaide, at the farm or with Anne in Woolshed Bay. Richard had the potential to make a full recovery but it would take time.
Back at Bethesda, Ryan took over as leader, introducing a more relaxed management style; only for the interim, he reminded everyone, only until Richard was back. There was no more mention of Brother Samuel and Abby surprised everyone by raising the issue of domestic violence at a session of Righteous Testimony.
Keziah told Prue and Steph all about it, as she enjoyed an after school visit to Bay View, one afternoon in early winter.
“Aunty Jane won’t admit that Uncle Justin hits her and Aunty Stella reckons if a wife is getting beaten, God will eventually honour her struggle and submission by stopping the violence. I don’t get that, ‘cause if God can stop it, why does he let it start? And what if she gets killed while they’re waiting for God to intercede?” She slurped enthusiastically on her chocolate milkshake. “It’s like, why did Uncle Richard get a brain tumour? Aunty Bella thinks illness is a punishment, so why didn’t Uncle Justin get the brain tumour?”
Steph and Prue exchanged glances.
“Did you ask those questions at the Righteous Testimony, sweetheart?”
“Yeah,” she answered, rolling her big brown eyes. “The conclusion was that God works in mysterious ways! But at least it was agreed that violence is not acceptable and that the community doesn’t believe that just because men have been given dominion over women, means they can hit them. Dad said it’s an abuse of power.”
“Quite right,” agreed Steph, tempted to challenge the notion of men having God-given dominion over women, but Keziah got in first.
Frances was silent, trying to come to terms with her mother’s story. It was the truth at last. She could well imagine her mother as a demanding, feisty young wife with high expectations and a sharp tongue in her head. A woman who could never admit to or accept weakness, never seek help or own any problems or faults. Until now.
“But why did Sarah Jane and Eddy not come back? After they married and when Stephanie came along?” asked Frances, puzzled.
“The Pascoes, our grandparents and her parents were appalled by the idea of them having sex outside of marriage and banished her. They would never have approved of Eddy. Sadie knew what they were like, so she never came back. I think Uncle Jack would have liked to see her again, when time had passed. But Aunty Belle was very judgemental and harsh. I missed Sadie so much, Stephanie. I loved her more than anyone, when I was growing up.”
“Mum made a good life for herself and she and Dad were very happy. She always hated prejudice and was completely non-judgemental. She regularly helped homeless people or anyone who felt rejected. It’s only now that I realise she was maybe filling in the hole left by losing her family. By losing her best friend,” said Steph thoughtfully, looking sadly at Anne.
“I didn’t want you here in this town, Stephanie, once I knew who you were. I knew it might end like this. And I was right. I managed to keep it locked away all these years and to blame Sadie. Always blame Sadie. It was never me. But of course it was all me. I sent them all away. I knew Ian had been drinking. I’d been driving him to the bottle with my mean behaviour for months. But still I sent him out to sea. I killed your father, Frances, after breaking his heart.”
“Yes, Mother, I can see why you would think that. But you know, he chose to go out. It sounds like your marriage was going through a tough patch and most likely you would have come through it, if that tragedy hadn’t intervened. You loved each other. In some ways there was a lot of bad luck involved too.”
“Don’t try to be kind, Frances. It’s bad enough Sister Wonderful here, trying to make me feel better,” she said, nodding at Steph, who was regarding her with a compassionate, if quizzical expression. “You can’t. I didn’t tell you what happened in order to make myself feel better. I told you the truth because you’ve more or less driven me to it. And I don’t want to hear about how good it must be for me to have finally faced up to my past. It’s agony. Do you think that remembering how cruel I was and realising that I’ve lived my whole life in denial, causing untold grief to my family– do you think that could be good for me?”
“Yes, actually,” said Steph briskly. “It’s been said now and we can all move on, especially you. You can tell Frances all about the wonderful father she never knew and then you can try to forgive yourself. God knows, you’ve spent over sixty years atoning. And don’t start wallowing in misery and reproach. You’ve helped a lot of people in this community. We all know you’ve grown a kind heart over that calcified tissue beating in your chest. You just hide it well.”