backHello from the Gillespies

  • Australian edition
  • UK edition
  • US edition

Hello from the Gillespies

For more than thirty years, Angela Gillespie has sent friends and family around the world an end-of-the-year letter titled ‘Hello from the Gillespies’. It’s always been cheery and full of good news. This year, Angela surprises herself – she tells the truth . . .

The Gillespies are far from the perfect family that Angela has made them out to be. Her husband is coping poorly with retirement. Her 32-year-old twins are having career meltdowns. Her third daughter, badly in debt, can’t stop crying. And her ten-year-old son spends more time talking to his imaginary friend than to real ones.

Without Angela, the family would fall apart. But when Angela is taken from them in a most unexpected manner, the Gillespies pull together – and pull themselves together – in wonderfully surprising ways.

(Readers will notice that there are two blank pages halfway through the story. Just to reassure you, these pages are deliberately blank, and not a printing error! They hint at something that has happened to the main character Angela – hopefully all will become clear as the story unfolds…)

‘A charming, heart-warming read. The characters are marvellous, the plot cracks along and McInerney ties up all the loose ends nicely. A wonderful read.’

New Zealand Woman's Weekly

‘Monica McInerney is a master of the family drama as she moves effortlessly between recriminations and anger to hope and redemption.’ ****

The Advertiser, South Australia

‘An entertaining comedy of dramas.’

New Idea magazine, Australia

‘Monica McInerney is becoming a worthy successor to Maeve Binchy, to be relied upon for an enormously thick Christmas novel that you can’t bear to put down. She knows family well.’ ****

Manly Daily, Sydney, Australia

‘With deeply developed characters who will capture the heart, a plot that knows just when to twist and a cathartic marriage between the two protagonists, McInerney’s novel is worth every page.’ ****

RT Reviews, USA

‘Readers who enjoy multicharacter, drama-laden family stories like those of Susan Wiggs or Maeve Binchy will find this episodic tale engaging. Its appeal lies in the evocation of the modern Australian outback; thorough descriptions of landscapes and the social norms of the Gillespies’ community lend authenticity to the story.’

Library Journey, USA

‘McInerney’s knack for characterization and the beautiful Australian setting make this heartwarming family story an enjoyable read.’

Booklist, USA

‘A satisfying family drama… McInerney writes with a deep respect for her characters. A book written with humor and charm.’

Kirkus, USA

‘A long family saga sprinkled with gentle humour… fans of this genre will love it. Snuggled up on the sofa with a hot chocolate on a cold night, they can catapult themselves into the searing heat of McInerney’s beloved “sunburnt country”. And realise that “dysfunctional” goes with “family” as universally as cup goes with saucer.’

Irish Independent

‘With warmth, vivid characters, and a sharp eye toward observing twenty-first-century life, Monica McInerney isn’t just one of my favourite writers from Down Under, but from anywhere.’

Sally Koslow, author of The Widow Waltz

‘Such a brilliant “what if…” idea. A gloriously heart-warming book you totally lose yourself in.’

Cathy Kelly, author of It Started with Paris

Online Reviews

‘Wonderful. In every single sense of the word, it was truly, utterly wonderful. Such a refreshing, original story.’

Becca's Books

‘If you are looking for a read which is incredibly emotional, has characters you will fall in love with and a plot that will keep you hooked until the end then I recommend this book, it’s perfect.’ *****

That Thing She Reads

‘What a great read! There were several occasions when I laughed out loud which, for me, is a definite sign of a good book!’

Running ‘n’

‘I don’t know what I was expecting when I read this book… but a book with such depth and full of amazing lessons was not it. I am delighted to say that this book surprised me, touched me and truly made me think.’ *****

‘Throughout the novel, Monica’s writing is wonderful. Her skill at describing the Australian landscape, and rural way of life, is divine.’

‘I have always enjoyed Monica McInerney’s novels and this one is no exception, there is so much packed into the book that you are getting a story plus more! Thoroughly recommended.’

The Book Jotter

Hello from the Gillespies

Chapter One

It was December the first. Angela Gillespie did as she’d done on that date for the past thirty-three years. She sat down at her desk before dinner and prepared to write her annual Christmas letter.

After doing so many, she had the process down to a fine art. It was a matter of leafing through her diary to recall the year’s main events, writing an update about each member of the family – herself, her husband and their four children – attaching a photo or two, then sending it off.

She’d written her first Christmas letter the same year she was married. Transformed from single traveller Angela Richardson of Forest Hill, London to newlywed Mrs Nick Gillespie of Errigal, a sheep station in outback South Australia, she couldn’t have been further from her old life, in distance or lifestyle. She’d decided an annual letter was the best way of keeping in contact with her friends and relatives back home. As the years passed, she’d added Nick’s relatives, their neighbours and her new Australian friends to the mailing list. It now went to more than a hundred people worldwide.

Her early letters had been in traditional form, typed on an old typewriter on their big kitchen table, then taken into Hawker, the nearest town (almost an hour’s drive away), photocopied and posted. It was much easier these days, the letters sent instantly via the wonder of email. Even so, she still printed out paper copies and kept them stored in the filing cabinet beside the desk.

She knew the children found the whole idea mortifying – they, and Nick, had stopped reading the letters long ago – but perhaps in years to come they might like to see them. Angela hoped so. She secretly thought of them as historical documents. All the facts of their lives were there, after all, recorded in brief dispatches. She’d read back through them all only recently.

She’d written about her first years of marriage: Nick and I couldn’t be happier! I am loving my new life on the land too. I can now name five species of native birds by their calls alone, four varieties of gum trees by their bark, and last week I drove a tractor for the first time. There’s hope for this London-born city girl yet! She wrote about the arrival of the twins less than a year after their wedding day: We already knew it would be twins, but it was still an incredible surprise to see two of them. One is so dark, the other so fair, and both so beautiful. We’re naming them after my grandmothers, Victoria and Genevieve. Three years later, she wrote about Lindy’s arrival: A third girl! Another beautiful brunette. The twins can’t wait to get their hands on their new little playmate. I get to name her too. (Nick and I struck a deal on our wedding night – I name any girls, he names any boys.) I’ve chosen my favourite name from Shakespeare – Rosalind. The twins are already calling her Lindy! The next two decades of updates were about outback station life, family holidays, academic results, hobbies, pets and funny incidents involving the girls, each report chatty and cheery.

Eleven years ago, she’d included a piece of news that she suspected had shocked her readers as much as it had her. At the age of forty-four, she was pregnant again. She’d thought she was menopausal. Instead she’d discovered she was almost five months pregnant when a routine visit to the doctor led to an unexpected pregnancy test and an even more unexpected result. Two days after the birth, breaking with tradition, she’d sent out a special mid-year email to everyone on her mailing list. It’s a boy!!! Our first son!!! Nick gets to name one at last!!!!

She’d used far too many exclamation marks, she noticed afterwards. Post-birth endorphins at work, she presumed. Either that or delayed shock at the names Nick had chosen for their son. At her hospital bedside, he’d confessed he promised his long-deceased and sentimental grandfather that he would name any future son after the first Gillespies – two male cousins – to come from Ireland to Australia in the 1880s. Which was why their fourth (and definitely final) child was baptised Ignatius Sean Aloysius Joseph Gillespie. One of Nick’s friends had been very amused. ‘He’ll either be the first Australian pope or end up running a New York speakeasy.’

At first Angela tried to insist everyone call him Ignatius, but it was a losing battle. She’d long realised that the shortening of names was a national pastime in Australia. He was Iggy within a day of his baptism. A week later, even that was shortened. He’d been called Ig ever since.

She could hear his voice now, floating down the hall from the kitchen. The homestead was big, with six bedrooms, two living rooms and a high-ceilinged dining room, all linked by the long hall, but sound still carried well. Ig and Lindy were playing – attempting to play – a game of Scrabble before dinner. Angela could also hear the faint strains of Irish music coming from the dining room. She knew Nick was in there working on his family research. Over the past six months, the large polished dining table had slowly become covered in stacks of hardback books on aspects of Australian and Irish history. Not just books, but also shipping records, hand-drawn family trees and photographs. They weren’t just in the dining room, either. The office too. In fact, every surface in the house had started to accumulate history journals or family-tree paraphernalia of one form or another. The previous week Angela had searched for her car keys for nearly an hour before finding them beneath a pile of ancestry magazines.

Beside her, the six o’clock news jingle sounded from the radio. Angela blinked. She’d better get a move on if she was to send her letter tonight. She clicked on her template document, with its border of Christmas trees already in place, along with her traditional opening line in Christmassy red and green letters (‘Hello from the Gillespies!’) and equally festive farewell (‘A Very Merry Christmas from Angela and all the gang!’). All she had to do now was fill in the blank middle section with her family news.

One minute passed, then another. The words just wouldn’t come. Perhaps she should break with tradition and choose the photos first. She opened the folder of digital shots she’d collected over the past twelve months. She usually sent a group one, but the family hadn’t been together in front of a camera for more than two years. Could she just send separate and recent photos of each of them instead?

She clicked through the possibilities, starting with the twins. No, Victoria wouldn’t be happy for any of those to go into wide circulation. Wide being the operative word, unfortunately. Not that Angela would ever say it to her, but Victoria had put on a lot of weight since she’d moved to Sydney nearly two years earlier. Comfort eating, Angela suspected, after the stressful time she’d had in her job as a radio producer. She still looked lovely though, Angela thought. Like a pretty, rosy-cheeked milkmaid, with her blonde hair curling to her shoulders and her blue eyes. But she might not appreciate Angela sending out photos just at the moment.

As for Genevieve, the most recent photo she’d emailed from New York wasn’t really suitable for public viewing either. For a hairdresser, and especially a hairdresser working in the glamorous American film and TV world, Genevieve took a very devil-maycare approach to her own hair. In this latest shot she looked like she was on the way to a fancy-dress party, her newly acquired bright-blue dreadlocks tied in a loose knot on top of her head, her dark eyes heavy with eyeliner, as usual, and alight with mischief, also as usual. She’d explained it all in her email. A hairdresser friend had needed to practise dreadlock extensions for a film she was working on and Genevieve had volunteered. It’s only temporary, promise! she’d written. Thank God for that! Angela had emailed straight back. Ig said to tell you that you look like a feral Smurf. Genevieve had been very amused by that. Genevieve was very amused by most things.

There were several recent photos of Lindy, but unfortunately she looked like a prisoner on the run in most of them, wild-eyed and panicky. The camera really didn’t lie, Angela thought. Poor Lindy had been a bag of nerves since she’d returned home to live. Her general air of disarray wasn’t helped by the fact she’d taken to wearing her long brown hair in two messy bunches, like a little girl. It had been the in-thing in Melbourne circles, she’d told Angela. Which circles? Angela had wondered. Kindergarten? She hadn’t said it aloud. She’d learned the hard way that there was no teasing Lindy about her appearance. Or about anything, really.

At least there were dozens of photos of Ig to choose from. He loved being in front of a camera. But none of them was suitable either. His dark-red curls badly needed a cut and Angela hadn’t got around to it yet, deciding to wait until Genevieve and her scissors were home again. In the meantime, he looked more like her fourth daughter than her only son. If she attached one of those photos to her Christmas letter, she’d definitely receive a disapproving email from Nick’s Aunt Celia. Celia had very strict ideas about suitable haircuts for boys. Celia had very strict ideas about everything.

As for recent photos of herself and Nick together . . . It felt like they’d hardly been in the same room together for months, let alone in front of the same camera. She turned and gazed at the back wall of the office. Thirty-two photos of her and Nick looked back at her. They were another tradition she had started the year they were married. An annual photo of the two of them in the same position, standing in front of the homestead gate, the big stone house behind, that huge sky above, all space and light. Each year she’d sent one print back home to her parents in London and framed another for this wall. As the years had gone by, the children had appeared in the photos too. Angela stood now and looked at each picture in turn. Not at her own image, but at Nick standing to her left in every photo, six foot one to her five foot five.

He hadn’t changed much over the years, as tall, lean and tanned in the most recent photo as he was in the earlier ones. She reached for the first picture, studying it closely, clearly remembering this early moment of their married lives. It had taken them eight tries to get the self-timing camera to work properly. They’d been about to give up when it clicked. She was looking straight at the camera, wearing a cornflower-blue cotton dress the same colour as her eyes, her hair a mass of black curls, her smile wide if somewhat frozen after so many attempts to get the shot. Beside her, Nick was dressed in dark jeans and a white shirt, his sleeves rolled up. He wasn’t only smiling but laughing, completely relaxed, indulging her, gazing down at her with such amusement. Such pride. Such love.

She felt that jolt inside her again. Like a sudden pain, a pang. She still couldn’t put an exact name on it. Was it sadness? Fear? Confusion? All of those and something else. It was the closest she’d felt to homesickness since she was a child. A longing for someone. The feeling of missing them, wanting them so badly that it physically hurt. It was how she had felt about Nick for months now. She couldn’t understand it, no matter how much she tried. How could it be that her husband could be so physically close to her every day, beside her in bed every night, yet so far away, so distant, so —

Ha! I win again!’

The cheer from the kitchen interrupted her anxious thoughts. They would get her nowhere, she knew that already. She also needed to concentrate on her letter. She decided to forget about sending individual photos. She’d do what she’d done with her previous letter and attach a family group shot from a few years ago. She hoped no one would notice she, Nick and the girls all looked younger and that Ig appeared to be shrinking rather than growing.

Back at the computer, a chime alerted her to an incoming email. She opened it, secretly glad of another distraction. Thank you, Angela, our Outback Angel!!!! the subject line read. It was from an elderly couple in Chicago, just home from their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia, including a week staying on Errigal.

Angela had joined the outback station-stay program thirteen years earlier, after the three girls had left home, and before Ig arrived. It had initially been a financial decision. The drought had hit them hard, the wool industry had collapsed. Like all their neighbours, they had needed some extra income. While Angela had often helped with the practical side of station life, Nick had never discussed the station’s finances with her in detail, despite her frequent requests to be involved. Angela had known, though, that every extra dollar would be useful. To her own surprise, she’d discovered she had not just a flair for hosting visitors and tour guiding, but for promotion too. She’d joined forces with local tourism associations, advertising Errigal’s isolation and beauty wherever she could. She’d done the occasional interview on radio, in newspapers, even once on TV. ‘The English rose of the Australian outback’, the interviewer had called her.

She’d started small, doing up the old governess’s quarters that adjoined the homestead, welcoming couples and families, one or two a month, from March until November. The numbers had grown as each year passed, expanding to include school groups who were happy to sleep rough in the shearers’ quarters when they weren’t in use by Errigal’s contract shearers. At last count, nearly five hundred people had stayed on Errigal, not just from all over Australia but from overseas too – Europe, Asia, America – all seeking a taste of life on an isolated outback station with Angela as their guide.

While Nick had been busy elsewhere on the station, moving stock, maintaining their property, she’d taken her guests on long drives through the dramatic landscape, pointing out not just Wilpena Pound, St Mary’s Peak and Rawnsley Bluff, landmarks of the Flinders Ranges, but the smaller, less well-known peaks and valleys too. Everything had a name and a story attached. Over the years she’d heard them all from Nick, from their Aboriginal stockmen, from their neighbours. She loved sharing not only the stories, but all the statistics too. Their property was 70000 hectares, 700 square kilometres. At its peak, before the drought, it had been home to ten thousand sheep. Huge numbers, but the property still took up only a tiny part of this enormous country.

Even after Ig’s surprise arrival, Angela had continued to host visitors, bringing him along in his car seat in the four-wheel drive. She’d taken her guests to all the best lookout spots, enjoying their delight in photographing not just the scenery, but also the kangaroos, emus and lizards. They were a part of day-to-day life for her now, but still a wonder to overseas visitors. She’d shared stories of the area’s Aboriginal history, about the Adnyamathanha people who had first lived there. She’d talked about the Irish Gillespies who had settled here in the 1880s, taken her guests into the now-disused woolshed, let them feel the wooden rails and floorboards made smooth from years of lanolin-rich fleeces. Sometimes they even camped out under the stars. She’d learned all the constellations over the years – the Southern Cross, the Pointers, different stars to the ones she’d known growing up in England.

Reading the comments in the visitors’ books always brought back many memories.

This place is one of the world’s best-kept secrets, please stop advertising!

A once-in-a-lifetime stay, thank you so so so much.

Ig was often mentioned too. What a cute kid! Come visit us in the US someday, Ig! He’d featured in many of their guests’ photos over the years as well, looking the part of the wild outback kid with his mop of hair, his shorts and T-shirts no matter the weather and, more often than not, his bare and dusty feet too.

This couple from Chicago had been among her favourite guests. Everything they’d seen, from the smallest bird to the most vivid red sunset over the nearby ranges, had been declared ‘absolutely one hundred per cent awesome’. Their email was as enthusiastic. We miss you, Angela! Chicago is too noisy for us now. We miss Errigal and the bird sounds and that huge, huge sky, and the colours and the quiet and most of all we miss you looking after us, spoiling us every hour of every day! She was tempted to read on, but there wasn’t time now. She had work to do. A letter to write.

It did feel like work for once.

Come on, Angela, she thought. Get started. She moved her chair closer to the computer. Her fingers hesitated over the keys. Just do it, she told herself, feeling a headache start to pulse. Get it written, get it sent out and then you can go and lie down. Even if only for a few minutes.

She finally started, summoning the usual cheery tone she used for her letters, recalling opening sentences from previous years, hoping no one would notice they’d been recycled.

Yes, it’s Angela back again! Can you believe twelve months have passed since I last wrote to you? Where has the time gone? Everything is great with us, after another action-packed and fun-filled year for all the Gillespies. I hope it’s been a good year for all of you too!

She stopped there and thought back over the past year. She thought of all her Christmas letters over the decades. All those bright, happy letters, putting the best possible spin on their lives, making it sound as though the Gillespies were the luckiest, loveliest, most successful, well-balanced, supportive family in all Australia, and possibly even the world. She had always skipped over any troubles. Avoided mention of any tensions. Edited out any sticky subjects. It had felt like the right thing to do, even if she knew her family sometimes sounded too good to be true.

She felt her headache pulse faster and rubbed at her temple automatically. It wasn’t just the headaches that had kept striking with regularity lately. At the age of fifty-five, something else had started to happen. She’d talked about it with her neighbour Joan, a station wife and former nurse. In her mid-sixties, straight-talking and kind, Joan was Angela’s best friend in the area, the one person who had genuinely welcomed her when she arrived, a wide-eyed, secretly homesick English girl. They didn’t often meet in person – they lived nearly seventy kilometres apart – but they spoke on the phone regularly, sometimes daily. Angela had shared her worries with Joan several weeks earlier.

‘Is it a secret symptom of life after menopause, one that no one talks about?’ she’d asked.

‘I’m still not sure what “it” is, exactly. You need to be clearer with me. Have you developed blue spots? A forked tongue?’

Angela tried to summarise it. ‘It’s like a constant urge to tell the truth.’

‘Oh, that!’ Joan said, laughing. ‘That’s just wisdom setting in. You’re losing patience with beating around the bush, you mean? You want to get straight to the point all the time? I always feel like that these days. Go for it, love! Let it rip! Tell the truth! It’s good for you.’

But how could she change overnight? Angela had thought afterwards. Not after years of being the person in her family who smoothed things over and kept everyone happy. So she’d continued to be the good, kind, polite woman she’d been brought up to be. The Angela that Nick had married. The mother her children knew. The welcoming host and tour guide. The neighbour who could be relied on to help out, lend a hand . . .

But the new, peculiar sensation wouldn’t go away. It truly was starting to feel as if there was another Angela inside her, struggling to get out. As if the headaches were a symptom of it, evidence of the ‘real’ her trying to break through the ‘polite’ her. A growing urge to be different, to go back to being the Angela she was when she first came backpacking to Australia all those years before. Adventurous Angela. Full of hope and anticipation Angela. Not the Angela she had become. Ordinary Angela.

Anxious Angela.

She turned and gazed out of the office window behind her. It was still bright outside, but the shadow cast by the deep verandah allowed her to see her reflection. Her head of black curls was now threaded with silver. Her once pale skin had seen too much sun since she’d arrived nearly thirty-four – how could it possibly be so many? – years ago. She took off her reading glasses and leaned forward. People used to tell her she had beautiful eyes. Such an unusual blue. Nick had often told her they were the first thing he’d noticed the night they met. But after three decades of squinting into bright sunlight, even they seemed to have faded. She still noticed the strength of the light here. At home in England, the weather was soft, misty, blurred around the edges. Here, the weather was a wild creature, fierce, untamed, with a mind of its own. Oh, you must love all that sunshine, English school friends had written over the years. Aren’t you the jammy thing! Weren’t you in the right place at the right time when that property heir dropped in for a beer!

She’d told the story so many times, not just to neighbours and friends, but to her station-stay visitors too. They always wanted to know how an Englishwoman like her had come to live in the outback. Everyone seemed to love the whole romance of her and Nick’s first meeting, the sheer chance of it. There she was, a twenty-two-year-old English backpacker filling in behind the bar for one night for a friend who’d got food poisoning. Nick was twenty-eight, from South Australia, in Sydney for one night to go to a big rugby game. He’d arranged to meet friends, got lost and walked into her pub to ask for directions.

She still remembered her first sight of him. Was it fate or destiny or sheer chance that she had looked up just as he came in the door? She’d been reading Wuthering Heights at the time, her head full of thoughts of Heathcliff. It were as if an Australian version had walked in. It wasn’t his looks or his height. He wasn’t conventionally handsome. It was the energy coming off him. A vitality. She’d have guessed even before he told her that his job was a physical, outdoors one. It wasn’t just his tan. He looked fit; strong too. His hair was as dark as hers, his eyes a deep brown. Irish colouring, she’d learned later. She’d helped him with the directions, even drawing a rough map on a beer coaster. On impulse, she offered him a drink on the house. He accepted, but only if he could buy her one at the same time. She was due a break. Over their drinks, they talked. And talked. And laughed. He noticed the time first. He had to go or he’d miss the match. They arranged to meet for a drink afterwards.

They spent more hours together that night, more talking, more laughing, the physical attraction growing between them by the minute. He wasn’t like any man she’d met before, in England or Australia. He was curious. Thoughtful. Clever, but he wore it lightly. If his eyes were a window to his soul, she could tell he was kind, intelligent, amused, admiring. That night, he walked her back to her hostel. She added good manners to his list of qualities. They didn’t kiss then. They met for lunch at his hotel the next day, kissed as they were saying goodbye and were still kissing twenty minutes later. She flew to South Australia a week later to see him again. That was when she learned he wasn’t just a farmer but heir to an enormous property on the edge of the outback. Oh, it’s so romantic! her friends said. He’s like an Australian Mr Darcy!

They were married within a year. She was pregnant three months later. The twins arrived a week before their first anniversary.

‘A marriage written in the stars,’ her father said in his effusive speech after their wedding in a cathedral in Adelaide. It was a Gillespie family tradition to be married there, even though Angela had secretly hoped they might get married in the tiny chapel on the Errigal property. But how would everyone fit? Nick had said, smiling. After a moment she’d smiled back. She’d been joking, she said. But she hadn’t. She’d loved that tiny chapel from the first time she saw it. She wasn’t very religious, that wasn’t what appealed to her. She’d loved it as a beautiful building filled with history. The old golden stone, the hand-carved wood, the pews polished to a high gleam by all the farmers and their families who had travelled miles over the years to meet there and pray . . .

It wasn’t a chapel any more. It had long been deconsecrated. Fifteen years earlier, an electrical storm had blown off a section of its roof and knocked out a side wall. It was now little more than a ruin. Even so, she liked to walk across the paddocks to it as often as she could, even for just a few minutes of peace and quiet. She’d sit on one of the remaining pews, look up at the open sky and simply listen. She’d hear the wind slinking through the leaves of the gum trees. The galahs with their squawks, like scratches down a blackboard, a sound to make you wince but one she’d grown to love. If she sat very still, she’d hear more. Lizards skittering across the stone wall beside her. The distant rusty grind of the windmill sails. Sometimes, rarely, the sound of a car on the dirt road, tyres on loose gravel. Eventually, the stiller she became, she would hear her own breathing, slow breaths in, slow breaths out . . .

Then always, before too long, a voice. Or two voices. Calling for her across the paddocks. ‘Mum? Mum?’ She’d wait for the second call, able to tell even at a distance whether it was urgent or not, whether she could walk back slowly across the scratchy soil, or whether she should run. Only twice had she needed to run, both in recent years, to rescue Ig from physical predicaments. He’d got his head trapped in the rungs of a kitchen chair one day. Another time, he was up on top of the pantry cupboard and couldn’t get down. It had been so different raising a boy. Her three daughters had never got themselves into all these physical scrapes, had they? If they had, she’d conveniently forgotten them. But having a son had taken her by surprise in so many ways. Her intense love for Ig had taken her by surprise. What was that joke? ‘If your mother tells you that she doesn’t have a favourite child, then you’re not her favourite child.’ That didn’t apply to Angela, though. She didn’t have any favourites. She loved her four children equally. Of course she did.

She stood and walked over to the window. She couldn’t see much from this side of the homestead, but she knew what was out there. The lawn they tried valiantly to keep green for at least a month or two each year, using water that was always so precious. The old stone tool-shed with the blue wooden door that now housed her second-hand pottery wheel and drying kiln. She’d taken up pottery as a hobby in recent months, for reasons she still didn’t quite understand herself. Beside it, the rose bush that Nick had planted for her as a surprise first-anniversary present, which still miraculously produced bright-red blooms, despite the droughts and heatwaves it had endured. All the other station buildings, the woolshed, the shearers’ quarters, the machinery shed. Beyond the station itself, the vast paddocks that one day soon would sprout mining equipment, exploration vehicles . . .

Further away again, kilometre after kilometre of long straight dirt roads, with the curving hills of the Chace Range visible on one side, views across to the Flinders Ranges and the distinctive crater shape of Wilpena Pound on the other. Then tarred main roads, then wide highways leading to small towns and to a city, eventually. But overwhelmingly, all around their old stone homestead, there was nothing but wide open space, for as far as —

Don’t be mean!

The voice – Ig’s – made her jump. The game of Scrabble was obviously over. An argument had begun. What was the trigger this time? Angela wondered. Lindy teasing him about his long hair, perhaps? Angela wished she wouldn’t do that. At twenty-nine, she really was old enough to know better. Or was it about whose turn it was to set the table? Even at the age of ten, Ig spent more time arguing about children’s rights than it would take him to do the task in question. And Lindy seemed to have decided she was back home as a guest, not as a family member with housekeeping obligations.

In less than a fortnight, the twins would be back home too, arriving with their jumble of suitcases, their constant chatter, taking over the house with their two big personalities. They were powerful enough apart, unstoppable together. Genevieve had put it into words once, at just the age of five. ‘You can never win, Mum. It’s two of us against one of you.’

Not only them. Nick’s Aunt Celia would be here soon as well, trailing a cloud of too-strong musky perfume, her sharp eyes noting every fault in Angela’s housekeeping, her over-cultivated voice airing her ever-ready opinions about the children.

And Nick? Once, they would have laughed about it all together. She’d have had his support, his listening ear. It would have been the two of them united, his wit and humour helping her cope with anything life threw at her. But now?

Her head started to throb again, just above her left ear. The headaches had started five months ago. She’d waged a quiet war against them since then. Her doctor in Port Augusta had sent her for different tests, even a brain scan. She’d been given the all-clear, but the headaches had continued. Since then, she’d tried medication, massage, acupuncture, to no avail. She’d talk to her doctor about it again in the new year. There was too much else happening now. Not just the twins coming home, Aunt Celia’s arrival, Christmas to organise. The Gillespies were also this year’s hosts of the mid-December woolshed party. The station families took turns hosting an annual gathering, and it was the Gillespies’ turn again. Angela had been planning it for weeks. Their freezer was already full of party food, and there was a delivery due the next day of all the hired tables, chairs, glasses and crockery.

No, there definitely wasn’t time now to worry about a headache. It would have to wait until January. Perhaps she could combine a visit to the specialist in Adelaide with a shopping trip. She could even treat herself to a nice solo lunch afterwards in one of the restaurants near the river. She could sit there with a book and a glass of wine, take as long as she liked. Perhaps she could even stay the night before the four-hour journey home again. Yes, that’s exactly what she’d do. Have some peace and quiet. What did they call it in the magazines? Having ‘me time’?

But not tonight. There was no time for any of that tonight. She had a Christmas letter to write and send. She turned back to the computer, fighting that overwhelmed feeling again. She thought back over everything that had happened to her family during the past twelve months, wondering how on earth she could turn it all into one of her cheery Christmas letters. Joan’s voice suddenly came to her mind, as if she was standing there beside her.

Go for it, love! Let it rip! Tell the truth! It’s good for you.

She actually laughed out loud. Tell the truth? How could she?

Go for it, love! It’s good for you.

Angela stared at the screen for a long moment. Then she started a new letter, typing faster than she’d ever typed before.

Australian edition