Kate noticed Jack and his mate Paul when she went down the street shopping for her mother some weeks before he and she first met.
Jack had driven to the town with the horse and dray from the road-building camp and was loading bags of potatoes in the lane beside Mrs Johansson’s general store.
When Mrs Fleming’s kelpie bitch–which she had told to stay with her neat little pony and trap parked below the pines on the foreshore–started lunging at the feet and tail of the heavy horse between the shafts of the dray, the big animal only put its ears back and stamped its front foot.
Then the dog aimed higher at the inner loose skin of the front right leg and attached its teeth to an exposed area of the softer hide, then discovered it could not let go.
At that point, the gelding threw up its back legs, kicking the dray and sending three bags of potatoes to the ground where they split open spreading potatoes over a large area of the lane.
Onlookers were aghast. But the tall young men with the horse and cart acted without panic or fear.
First taking a firm hold of the horse’s bridle and speaking into its ear while stroking its neck and chest with his other hand, one of the men reached under the horse’s belly and with a hand above and one below the dog’s muzzle, pulled open the mouth and lifted the animal out and away from the leg and the horse.
With one hand holding both jaws together and the dog held tightly between his legs, he reached for a piece of rope hanging from the side of the dray, and quickly made a leash around the dog’s neck.
The dog yelped as he let it go from between his legs.
Looking quickly back at the horse, which had its ears back and was snorting loudly, he called “Who-up Raj” in a strong but gentle voice. Then he turned towards the crowd gathered at the lane entrance to watch events and said, “Anybody own this kelpie?”
Mrs Fleming put up her hand. “I’m very sorry,” she said. “The dog was supposed to stay with the trap until I came back from shopping. I do hope your horse is all right?”
The young man handed her the rope and dog and smiling said, “A nice dog madam, but better if it sticks to sheep I think. I’d tie it to your trap if I were you.” Then he turned, looked quickly at the bite on the horse’s leg, patted and praised the horse and went to help his workmate pick up the potatoes.
Kate had watched with great interest. She admired the young men as they worked loading the dray, and she was impressed with the tall young man’s self-assured and pleasant manner.
She wondered if either of them ever visited her father’s hotel. She certainly had never noticed them there.
It was a big day at the Grand Pacific Hotel on the Saturdays when the local cricket team played at home.
Kate and her older sister Anna were flat out helping their mother Rosa prepare meals in the kitchen and their father Darcy would often call for Anna to help in the bar when yet another large thirsty group walked in.
Kate wasn’t allowed to do bar work. Her parents had decided that her sister Anna’s sometimes over confident and flirtatious behaviour with men could have something to do with her being allowed to work behind the bar from a young age.
They thought she had received too much attention from customers who were pleasant and attentive to the impressionable young girl, constantly paying her compliments and commenting on her fine looks.
Her coquettish behaviour behind the bar would sometimes cause tension between her and her father. It was considered wise therefore, to confine Kate to work that was not constantly in the public eye, so Kate worked with Rosa in the kitchen and with the hired help, cleaning rooms and making beds.
Kate was happy with this arrangement. Most times she enjoyed working with her mother. Rosa would talk to her about all manner of things; things that Kate would probably never have learnt about if she worked in the bar. And she got to do the shopping, which took her away from the hotel and out walking.
Lorne played Deans Marsh at home the day Kate met Jack.
Jack and his friend Paul were not really pub blokes, but having a day off on such a fine day and with many of their friends involved with cricket, it was natural that they would visit the Grand Pacific. They stayed out on the lawns in front of the hotel and took turns to go into the pub for drinks.
Kate had just moved the second big pot of pea and ham soup off the heat to a spot where it would stay hot but not boil or burn when her father stuck his head through the door and called out, “Kate? Go and see if you can find empty glasses outside, would you love? We seem to be running out. Thanks.”
Kate looked at Rosa, who nodded agreement. “Take the wooden tray with the better handles dear,” she said, gesturing with her head towards the big sideboard near the back door.
When Kate wandered out into the afternoon sunlight she was surprised to see so many people. The outdoor tables were rarely fully used, but today they were all in use, and people who couldn’t get a seat had found places to squat or lie down on the grassy patches away from the tables and chairs.
As she moved around collecting empty glasses, people who knew her from the town–shop people mostly–called out, “Hello Kate!”
A man’s voice came from somewhere in the crowd yelling “Crikey! Where has she been hiding?”
She would have stopped and chatted to friends, but she knew that Darcy needed glasses in a hurry.
It was on her fourth foray with the tray that she spotted the two young men she had seen loading potatoes. They were lying on the grass along with three other fellows. They had not yet seen her approaching, and she was able to observe them for a moment.
Both were listening intently to one of the other men, a stem of grass in the older lad’s mouth and a cricket ball in one hand of the fellow she guessed to be around her own age. Then the group all laughed, and the speaker’s mate slapped him on the back as if to congratulate him on telling such a good story.
The younger man rose and tossed the ball to his mate, then collected the empty glasses. As he turned to head towards the bar entrance for drinks, he discovered Kate standing in front of him with her half-empty tray.
“Hello,” he said with a big grin. Kate noticed that his ruddy face suddenly became redder.
“Hello,” she replied. “Can I take those glasses for you?”
“Err … yes. Thank you,” he replied, then, “Do you work here?”
Kate observed his open, boyish expression. He was not like many of the men who came to the hotel, just looking for a good time and hoping to meet a girl who would give it to them. They were the ones who would call out or try to get you to answer silly questions.
“Yes, I do,” Kate replied. She instantly saw that he wasn’t sure what to say, so she continued. “Didn’t I see you loading potatoes at the store a couple of weeks back? You and your friend were having a bit of trouble with your horse and a kelpie.”
The young man laughed and said, “You have a good memory and yes, that was me and I was with my friend Paul.” He motioned towards the man lying on the grass behind him. “What is your name?”
“I’m Kate, Kate O’Malley. I live here with my family. My parents own the hotel. What’s your name?”
“Jack Jones and I’m with the road gang. I look after the horses. Pleased to meet you, Kate.”
A sudden voice from behind called. “Have you forgotten it’s your shout Jack? We’re getting thirsty over here.”
Jack turned and called back, “Coming up.” Then he looked back at Kate and said, “Gotta go, Kate. I do hope we meet again soon though.”
Jack’s disarming smile prompted Kate to reply, “I hope so too, Jack, goodbye.”
Jack came to town on Tuesdays and Fridays. His friend Paul usually came with him on Tuesdays when the bulkier and heavier supplies were collected from the store. It was also the day when machinery spare parts and other equipment arrived on the boat and were collected from the wharf by the two men.
When Jack came alone on Fridays, it was usually to top up supplies and collect the mail.
It was on a Friday that Jack bumped into Kate outside the store. Kate had a basket full of groceries on one arm and a bag with more shopping on the other.
“Hello Kate,” said Jack.
“Hello Jack,” Kate replied.
They smiled at each other, both unsure what to say next and both hoping the other would speak first.
Jack looked at Kate’s shopping, then said quickly, “Can I carry the shopping home for you Kate? I’ve nothing to do except wait for the post and that won’t get here for another hour at least. I was only going to take a walk along the foreshore.”
“If you would like to, Jack. It’s a bit of a hike up that hill. I wouldn’t want to wear you out,” she replied with a smile.
Jack noticed a twinkle in her eyes and laughed. “People are the same as horses. If they stand around too long with nothing to do, they quickly lose condition. You wouldn’t wish that on a bloke, I’m sure.”
Jack relieved Kate of her basket and bag, and they began to walk slowly towards the hill and the hotel.
They had taken only a few steps when Mrs Johansson came out from her store and called to Kate.
“Kate, you forgot the sugar, love.”
She handed the bag of sugar to Kate, who thanked her and apologised.
“That’s all right, Kate. It can happen to anyone.” She paused and glanced at Jack. “Sometimes there are more important things to think about than a bag of sugar,” Mrs Johansson laughed as she turned to go back into the store.
“Oh, and Jack, don’t hurry back for the mailbag. I just remembered Jim said the post would be a bit late getting here today,” and then she disappeared inside.
Jack and Kate stood smiling at each other for a moment, then turned and walked on. The two were quiet for a little while; then Kate said, “Do you have a family, Jack?”
Jack was quiet for a moment.
“Well, yes and no. My mother died just over a year ago and my dad when I was seven. I have a young brother, Alfred, who’s fifteen. He lives in mum’s old house with Mum’s brother Jock in Colac. There were four of us, all boys. The older boys died in the war.”
Jack fell silent. Then Kate looked across at him and said, “I’m so sorry, Jack. Losing your family so young. Gosh, it’s hard to believe.”
They were both quiet again.
Jack gave a little laugh and said, “I think Florence Johansson has become my mother now. She used to be quite grumpy with me when I first went into the store. Then Paul told her about my mum dying and suddenly she looks out for me as if she’s taken on Mum’s job.
“Spoils me a bit. Slips me an apple or a biscuit sometimes when no one’s watching. She can still get stroppy with me though. Always tells me off if I bring the cart too close to the front door. She’s nervous with horses, I think.
But then Mum sometimes got stroppy with me too. It’s funny how although they never met, Florence will often say the same sort of things, just like my mother would have said.”
“Like what, Jack? What sort of things?”
“Well, a couple of times Mrs J has said exactly what Mum used to say to me, ‘You’ll see things differently when you grow up Jack.’ Funny that, don’t you think?”
Kate and Jack both laughed.
Kate told him first about her mother Rosa, then her father Darcy, and finally her older sister Anna.
“You must have noticed Anna, Jack. All the boys know Anna. She’s very attractive.”
Jack thought for a moment; then said, “Can’t say that I have. Is she like you?”
Kate laughed. “Anna has blonde hair and is very petite. Dad jokes with mum that he couldn’t have fathered two kids so different to look at, so whoever fathered the other one should chip in something towards her upkeep.”
Kate told Jack how she mostly worked in the kitchen with Rosa and how sometimes they had to cook for fifty people when the hotel was booked out for weeks in summer and folk came from the city to enjoy the beach and surf.
It seemed they had hardly begun their conversation when, too soon, they reached the back door of the hotel kitchen. As Kate turned to take the shopping from Jack, the back door opened and Rosa stood looking at the two of them. Kate seemed flustered for a moment and then said, “Mum, this is Jack. He kindly offered to carry the shopping home for me.”
Jack realised that he too felt a little uncomfortable, although he couldn’t think why.
“… And Jack, this is my mother, Rosa.”
Jack put down the basket and put out his hand and began, “Pleased to meet you Mrs … ,” then realised he had forgotten Kate’s surname.
“You can call me Rosa, Jack.” Kate’s mum shook Jack’s hand warmly, then said to Kate, “We’ve got extra bookings for the weekend and they are arriving this afternoon so they will be here for dinner. We’ve got a big afternoon ahead of us love, so don’t be too long.
“Just pop the bags over here, Jack. Thank you. It was nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll see you again.”
Rosa held open the door and indicated where Jack should put the groceries. Jack lowered the basket and bag onto the bench top and said goodbye.
Outside, Kate stood for a moment. She smiled warmly and said, “Thanks Jack. Might see you again next Friday morning if you’re around. I usually go to the store between nine-thirty and ten. Take care. Goodbye.”
When Jack got back to the store, Florence handed him the mailbag and smiled and said playfully, “You’ve had a busy morning, Jack.”
Jack coloured up for the second time that day but managed to quickly think of an answer. He smiled sheepishly at Florence and then, looking away, said in an exaggerated voice, “Just part of growing up I suppose, Mrs J.”
Florence immediately saw the joke and laughed loudly.
“You’re a good lad, Jack.”
They both laughed and said their good-byes.
“See you next week,” Florence called as Jack took the mail-bag and the box of groceries he’d ordered earlier, and headed out across the road to the horse and dray.
Kate met Jack the following Friday morning at the store, and Jack again carried her shopping home to the hotel.
Excitement and happy expectation showed on both their faces when they met. Neither had been certain that the other would turn up. The fear of disappointment was dispelled the moment they saw each other. And Florence Johansson only just managed to hide her excitement at the two meeting in her store.
She busied herself and went off out the back so that they could be alone for a few moments. And when they left, she gave them each a chocolate biscuit from the jar beside the cash register, saying, “They will give you both extra energy to get up that hill.”
As they began their walk in the sunshine and in view of the ocean, they were conscious only of each other.
Kate talked the most, though she tried very hard to appear relaxed and restrained or, as she saw it, “grown up”.
She couldn’t resist looking for little ways to tease Jack, to try to get him to show himself so that she could know him better, but very gently of course.
Then she became bolder and asked him more personal questions like–had he ever had a girl-friend, and if he had not, did he think he’d like to have one–to which Jack, not to be outsmarted, replied that, a man who spent as much time as he did with horses didn’t need a girlfriend.
Kate instantly pulled a face and lightly punched his upper arm and said that was not a proper answer. Jack laughed and added, “Of course, I’m yet to find a horse that can cook, mind you, so maybe, one day when I finally get tired of my own cooking, I’ll change my mind.”
Kate did not respond and they were silent for a few steps, then in a quiet but deliberately affected voice, Kate announced, “No doubt you’ll see things differently when you grow up Jack.”
Jack laughed out loud and Kate began to giggle.
Jack attempted to chase her up the hill. Then, feigning exhaustion, he sat down on the bench seat that looked out over the sea. The seat marked the halfway point in the walk from the store to the hotel.
Kate came back and sat down beside him and they both stared out to sea.
When Jack regained his normal breathing he said, in his proper everyday voice and still looking out to sea, “I would like you to be my girlfriend, Kate.”
Kate turned and looked at the side of Jack’s face and saw, instead of the playful boy of a few minutes ago, the serious young man who could handle himself and a difficult horse, and a crazy dog and so much more. In that quiet moment Kate moved herself closer to Jack, then she put her arm through his and found his hand. She squeezed it gently and said, “I would very much like you to be my boyfriend, Jack.”
She leant towards him and kissed his cheek, then rested her head on his shoulder.
When they parted at the kitchen door, they said very little. They felt the significance of the moment. They were in love and they were very happy.
“See you next week,” said Jack.
“Be early if you can,” Kate called as he headed off down the hill.
Jack turned and smiled back. “I will,” he said.
Kate would always look out for Jack, and sometimes she would bring him something special from the hotel kitchen.
Sometimes she would laugh and tell him that he was too big for a normal wife to have to feed and look after, and he’d need to marry a girl who had experience in cooking big quantities of food, a girl who had maybe worked in the kitchen of a hotel, for instance.
Jack would laugh and ask where she thought a bloke would find such a girl, then she’d yell and box his ears.
Working on the roads meant Jack had time to think, and much of that thinking was about Kate and how he would have to prove himself to her father and show how dependable he was, and how he knew a lot more things than Mr O’Malley probably thought he did, and how he wanted one day to have his very own farm and a vehicle repair business and breed top quality working horses.
Jack knew a lot about horses.
At the camp, a new horse was always put under Jack’s care for the first few weeks after its arrival. He’d get to know the horse, and quietly introduce it to the other horses and to its work responsibilities. He had a reputation for settling the more difficult young horses sent to work on the road, and the other men always came to him for help with their animals if something wasn’t working out.
Although it seldom happened, when the horses were being put into harness in the early dawn and were sometimes standing too close together, one horse might lash out with one or both of its back feet or swing its neck and head around with its ears back and showing a mouthful of teeth to its neighbour or its handler.
Sometimes this would be a deliberate response to what it saw as a provocation by another horse that it didn’t get on with and that it thought was getting too close.
Other times it could be because its handler was tightening a piece of harness too much or too quickly. Or maybe he had pinched the horse’s tummy flesh while double-checking the tightness of the belly strap.
Jack was always close by and ready to help, giving a new worker advice about his horse’s temperament or settling a bad-tempered horse should the need occur.
Jack was very confident about his future, but for some reason he had this feeling down deep that Kate’s father did not like him and, no matter what, would make their courtship as difficult as possible.
These feelings fell away whenever he was with Kate. Being with the one you love drives away a man’s worst fears.
It was late May and almost two months since Kate’s seventeenth birthday.
Jack went to Lorne earlier that week to pick up extra oats and chaff for the horses and other bits and pieces. Winter had arrived early, and the animals needed more oats each morning and night to keep them warm and working along the windy coastal cliff faces.
The town was quiet as Jack drove to the store and none of the lads came out as they often did when he pulled up.
It was cold and windy, and he couldn’t blame them for not coming out.
When he went into the store the people working there, most of whom he knew, looked at him sort of funny if they looked at him at all. A couple nodded then quickly looked away. It felt strangely as though they did not know him.
When Jack went to the counter with his list of stores, no one came to serve him. Usually, at least one would say hello or yell out to ask how much road had been dug that week.
After a few minutes, Mrs Johansson appeared and did something she had never done before. She came around from behind the counter and stood in front of Jack and looked directly into his face. Then she reached out and took hold of his hand and in a slow firm voice said,
“Jack, there is something I have to tell you.”
Jack felt confused. This sort of thing had never happened when he’d come to the store before. Mrs Johansson was silent for a moment, then she spoke.
“Jack! The O’Malleys have gone. They left in the middle of the night three days ago, and nobody knows where they went. People are saying that Darcy O’Malley had gotten heavily into debt gambling, and in desperation took the family and shot through. Kate’s gone, Jack. I’m so sorry.”
This story was recounted to the author by Jack Jones late in nineteen seventy. Jack’s life story was the inspiration for the author’s yet to be completed novel ‘RESTLESS’, a fictional saga portraying the lives of two young men growing up in Australia between 1900 and 1936.
Taken from Australian Short Stories by Richard Lee. Available from Amazon