The following morning, Maisie couldn’t wait to see if Marjorie was still there. Sure enough, the two were back in the kitchen drinking coffee. This time they were laughing.
‘Well, it looks like I need to get my own breakfast this morning.’
‘No, it’s almost ready. We can eat together.’
Maisie was itching to ask what had happen to Marjorie for all those years but for now, she just enjoyed the friendly chit-chat around the breakfast table.
Later, when the breakfast dishes had been washed and put away, Marjory went upstairs for a long hot bath and dressed in very outdated but clean clothes Katie found in the attic that had belong to one of the older sisters. Then, they all sat in front of a blazing fire in the sitting room. It was clear that Marjorie had explained some things to Katie but after a deep breath she began her story.
‘It was the summer that Meryl came to stay for the duration of her pregnancy. I was barely fourteen and Meryl a couple of years older. Meryl made my life a misery and bullied me whenever no one was nearby to witness her behaviour. About three months later’, Marjorie paused momentarily. ‘Meryl must have been in her sixth month of her pregnancy and I had gone into town alone to purchase a few sewing items for my grandmother and some ribbon for Christine. While visiting Suzie, I met a seven-year-old boy. Peter was a scruffy little fellow but a hard worker. He did odd jobs for Suzie, like bringing the wood in for the fire. Tom had never met him because he was in his shop most of the day.’
‘Why hadn’t Suzie mentioned this?’ Maisie looked from Katie to Marjorie.
Marjorie shrugged. ‘Anyway, I discovered he lived with his father in a small abandon cottage in the bush not far from town.’
‘You mean, that was him I saw, or rather heard yesterday?’
‘Peter? Yes sorry. He was just looking out for me.’
Maisie signaled her to continue.
‘I would sneak out at night with blankets and bandages. Little things at first. His father had been kicked in his chest by a horse he had bought so they could head south again before the winter hit. I had to do something. One night, Meryl followed me as far as the wood pile that Peter and his father had built away from the cottage. She told me she had waited there for a few hours for me to emerge. On my way home, I found her on the ground crying at the edge of the cemetery. She had tripped and fell belly down on a headstone that had fallen some time ago. I helped her back to the house and upstairs to her bed. I offered to summoned the doctor or at least Mother but she wouldn’t hear of it. A few days later she threatened to tell my father that she saw me with a boy and I was sharing a bed with him. I convinced her that he would want to know how she knew, which would get her into trouble too. After she got back on her feet, she bullied me even more. One night when I arrived at the cottage Peter was crying. His father had died earlier that evening. I couldn’t leave him alone with his dead father in the one-room house.’
‘Oh, that poor child,’ Katie gasped. ‘And you. Only a child yourself.’
‘It took all night to dig the grave on the far side of the cemetery close to the bush. We didn’t dare drag the body during daylight so I stayed all the next day and into the night. We used the thin mattress his father was on and rigged it up like a stretcher and used rope to tie it to the horse’s saddle. It was a slow process but we finally made it to the grave. It was a nightmare and it was after sun-up by the time we returned to the cottage and guess who was waiting for us?’
‘Meryl?’ Katie answered.
‘You guessed it. I had some explaining to do but it wasn’t going to be to her. She yelled at me and called me names I won’t repeat. Peter began to cry, so I sent her away telling her to tell whoever she wanted whatever she wanted. I never saw her again, not even when I returned to steal food.’ She looked over at Katie. ‘I only took enough for the boy and a little more for myself. He only earned a few coins for the odd jobs he did for Suzie. We had to let the horse go. We just couldn’t afford to feed it and I couldn’t let Peter try and sell it on his own. I’ve seen it a few times since. It’s a bit wild I suppose but it looks healthier. There’s plenty of dams and grassland closer to town.’
‘Why didn’t you trust any of us?’
‘I guess I thought I knew what Meryl had been saying and I just couldn’t leave the boy.’
‘Where is he now?’ Maisie asked.
‘He found full-time work at a farm just before his fifteenth birthday. It’s the old Thompson’s farm on the other side of town. I’m not sure who owns it now. I had taught Peter to read and write, gave him little history lessons about the country, where he lived and where the capital cities are. He was quite bright and always asked questions. When he moved into accommodation at the farm, he visited every few days and brought me food and purchased little things in town. He found the hooded cloak in a shed on the farm. It helped in the cold months and recently when I began to sneak into the house again. About a month back, Peter told me he was going on a trip with his boss to buy farm machinery. He said it would only be a couple of weeks at the most but he didn’t return until yesterday. When I ran out of supplies, I decided to return to the house. I had only seen the one car which was still a surprise because it’s off season.’
Katie paused Marjorie’s account to properly introduce Maisie. After the introduction, Marjorie continued.
‘The day before Peter left for the trip, I told him it was time I needed to work things out. He had new responsibilities and I had to find some way to support myself, but he made me promise not to go too far until he returned. I was contemplating heading to Melbourne or Sydney but most of my own personal items were still in my room. Hence my sneaking about upstairs. I also wonder why Maisie would be here on her own.’ She paused. ‘I’m sorry I went into your room. It was inappropriate.’
Maisie leaned forward in her chair. ‘Forgiven. We’re just glad you are here now. Did Peter know much about himself? His birth date? Full name? What happened to his mother?’ She stopped. ‘There I go again. Even as a small child, I was known as the interrogator. Dad said I should be a detective.’
Marjorie smiled. ‘That’s fine. His father Ruben kept his papers and his family records in order. His mother’s name was Susan. She was killed by a stampede of horses on a property up north at Lightning Ridge where his father worked as a property manager. Peter doesn’t remember the incident and his father only told me little bits before he died. Susan had taken their only child Peter to the river for a paddle. Peter says they went many times and remembers things like paddling barefoot and chasing butterflies but that’s about it. After she died Ruben couldn’t bear to stay there so he packed a few things on to his horse and hiked south. He hadn’t intended to stay here but his horse became lame.’
Here she frowned and spoke directly to Katie. ‘Sorry about the roast. It was his birthday and I wanted to give him something special. There wasn’t much already prepared in the refrigerator so I took the chance of anyone seeing the smoke from the wood stove.’
‘Why didn’t you come home? The family searched for you and when the last of your family were buried the solicitors tried to find you—as far away as Ireland.’
This appeared all too much for Marjorie. Her voice lowered. ‘I watched the burial of my grandparents, Father and Mother from the bushes. After they died, I couldn’t bear to return.’
Katie held Marjorie’s hands between her own. ‘Your sisters moved away. They have passed on too. You knew of Stan’s death?’
‘Yes, I was here when you first came to live with us, but I was so afraid of what everyone thought they knew.’ She sat for a moment in silence. ‘I think Father knew I was here sometimes. He may have even known a little of where I was. I would sneak into my room and sleep for hours. One night I thought he was sitting in the chair near my bed. It felt so real, but times I was so tired. I don’t sleep well in the cottage.’
Maisie shook her head. ‘I’m still amazed that no one saw you. How could you be there for all those years and not be found? Not even by a bush-walker…’
‘Or the police,’ interrupted Katie. ‘They were here for a week looking for you. I think they were actually homicide detectives from Sydney or Melbourne; because of the blood.’
‘The blood? Oh yes, I remember. I lost my scarf. I cut my finger cutting a piece of leftover meat in the kitchen here. I had wrapped the scarf around the finger to help stop the bleeding. We hid most of the time if we heard anyone but we saw no police.’Maisie leaned back and looked up at the ceiling while the other two chatted away. Finally, she spoke but more to the ceiling then the women: ‘The cottage is concealed from the road and it is about ten miles from here…and the cemetery is only 100 yards from the gate. Perhaps the police didn’t search that far.’
Katie broke into her thoughts. ‘You could be right. There’s a lot of bush between the cemetery and town and the police seemed to concentrate much of their time interviewing the family, our guests and people in town, especially Tom.’
‘Tom!’ the two younger women spoke in unison.
‘Why Tom?’ asked Maisie.
‘Tom had always been bad-mannered and can be quite unpleasant when he wants to be. He’s mellowed over the years but I was always thankful I didn’t marry him.’
‘Are you saying the police thought he had done away with me?’
‘Tom was the main suspect. He was in custody for almost three weeks before they released him. The police never returned and listed you as a missing person. Your parents were beside themselves with worry. There were rumours about a hitchhiker serial killer at the time but your parents finally decided that wherever you were, you were alive. It was the only way they could move on with their lives but they were never the same. It was your father who demanded we left your room as you left it.’
‘So, it’s possible your father knew more than he was letting on?’ Maisie waited for her reply.
‘Perhaps. I never stopped to think about how they felt. Not until years later. Peter became like a son to me. Other times he was just my little brother.’
Maisie stood to stretch her legs. ‘I hate to finish on a low but the authorities will need to be informed that you’re not a missing person anymore.’
‘She’s right,’ Katie said. ‘I still have the contact details of the family solicitor. I’ll call him today and ask his advice. He could take us to the police and explain things to them.’
Marjorie looked like a scared kid.
‘I don’t think you will get into too much trouble but you and Peter will have to show them where you buried his father, and the cabin. For now,’ Maisie said. While Katie goes into town to use the phone, why don’t you try on some of my clothes. We’re about the same size.’
This brought a small smile to Marjorie. ‘I guess I do look a sight’.
Maisie stayed on for a month focusing on her new mystery novel. Marjorie and Katie spent a few days in Melbourne to clear things up with the police and shopped till they dropped. The solicitor wanted to make Marjorie the official owner of Kelly’s Inn but Marjorie insisted he left things as they were until Katie retired or passed on. They planned to share the management of Kelly’s Inn and insisted on Maisie making an annual booking—off season of course.
Peter came to visit twice while Maisie was there that winter. Her suspicions were correct. He was the young man she had met at Suzie’s and the one who had spooked her that same day. After the police closed their investigation, Peter and Marjorie invited Maisie to return with them to the cabin one last time. Katie had also been invited but declined because she needed to “right” upstairs as she always did in the afternoon. They marked Ruben’s grave with a memorial plaque that also acknowledged Susan.
© Chrissy Siggee