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Authors: Joyce Dingwell

The Tender Winds of Spring

BOOK: The Tender Winds of Spring
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THE TENDER WINDS OF SPRING

Joyce Dingwell

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

The
sun beamed pleasantly through the driver’s window as Jo veered her small car into the mountains at the first turn-off after the large and arresting road sign.

Welcome to Big Banana Country,
the sign had announced, and it referred to the change now from the corn, pigs and dairying that had accompanied the traveller for the last hour to plantations of banana palms instead. There was even a gargantuan yellow plastic banana to prove it, and that had always been the twins’ instructions to their city visitors. ‘Turn,’ they had briefed, ‘after the Big Banana.’

Jo hummed contentedly as she did this now, but when she twisted soon afterwards into a lesser track still, a track childishly signposted:
To The Tender Winds of Spring
with an indicating (and badly drawn) finger, she actually burst into song. Why not? she glowed. Although this was not home any more she was still coming home.

She was ridiculously pleased to see that the new banana boss had not frowned on the signpost and ordered its removal. Either that or he hadn’t noticed. She and Gee had laboriously printed and perilously erected it nine years ago. They had been eleven apiece then, being twins. It seemed incredible to Jo now that so many years had fled. The bush, she thought, was still its breathtakingly beautiful self, but she and Gee were different. They were grown up. They were women. Gee actually was
almost the
mother of three. Trust Geraldine, Jo smiled proudly, to do things first! She herself had known a glow of pride when Gavin had proposed to her. For the first time, she had thought, I am ahead of Gee. Then Gee’s letter had come, and Gee had not only beaten her, she had done it in such a way that Jo had known she could never catch up. For Gee was about to be married, not just engaged, and with the marriage came three children.

‘Darling,’ Gee had scrawled, ‘at twenty I will be the mother of three quite established juniors. Two girls, one boy. Amanda is twelve, Dicky is eleven, and Sukey is under five. How’s that for action?’

Gee had gone on eagerly to talk about Mark, apparently the children’s father, apparently a widower, apparently, too, very well off.

Gee had said that the children had been at boarding school—it was there Gee had met them—but now were coming out. Mark had wanted her to get to know them before the ceremony, he had wanted to discuss them with her, but most of all the dear wanted them to like her, and she would see to it that they did, though she didn’t anticipate any trouble there; after all, most people had gone much further than merely liking her. Gee had added a smug: ‘Remember, Jo?’

Oh, yes, thought Jo now, I remember. I remember the extra smile, the extra sweetie, the extra petting for one of the twins. For Gee. But who could have wondered at that? Gee had been so lovely.

Now I, Jo thought whimsically, lodging the roots that always trespassed along the dirt track to The Tender Winds of Spring, was, and am, fairly passable, but Gee—Where Jo had turned out tow, Gee had turned out golden, where Jo had grey eyes, Gee had sapphire. Gee had finished up a little elegantly taller. A little more alluringly developed. Well, slightly better in everything, even in brains. Jo knew she was bright enough, but Gee was brilliant. That was why Gee had left the north coast at seventeen for Sydney, taken a course and most certainly come out on top, and that was why Jo had accepted a clerking job in the nearest coastal town. That, too, was why Gee was marrying a rich man and Jo was only just engaged to Gavin, Gavin doing well enough but never, Jo estimated, in Mark’s class.

That, finally, was why Gee was crowning it all with instant wifehood and instant motherhood at the age of twenty, whereas Gavin had insisted on a long engagement. ‘A year at least, my dear,’ he had decreed prudently.

Yet Jo didn’t care. She had played a contented second fiddle to her older twin so long she doubted if she could play any other part, or if she wished to. Also she loved Geraldine, loved her very much, she believed she understood her, she suspected that for all Gee’s confidence there was a faint note of uncertainty somewhere. She seemed to read it in Gee’s next passage regarding the children. ‘They seem average small fry,’ Gee had written, ‘but nothing’s all roses, is it, and that’s where you’re to come in. I know you don’t go to The Tender Winds of Spring these days ... lord, what silly kids we were with that name, and how did the Mitchells ever put up with us? ... but this time, for me, you must. You must take a week off from your dreary office and be waiting there to put in some good spadework.’ It had all flowed very Gee-ish, for Geraldine, bless her, had always been sweetly, unconsciously self-absorbed, always issuing orders, no matter who was inconvenienced, so long as she got her own way. But in Gee’s final lines Jo had read a call for help from her twin ... a call from Geraldine, she had marvelled, who never needed help from anyone.

‘Jo,’ Gee had concluded, ‘these children must like me, for I, you see, love Mark.’

Geraldine, her proud twin Geraldine, loving anyone apart from—well, Geraldine!

It had been sufficient to send Jo bursting into Gavin’s office, a thing she never did because she knew he wouldn’t like it from his fiancée, and telling him she wanted leave of absence.

‘My dear, whatever for?’ Gavin had objected. ‘We both take our holidays at the end of next month. We’ve made all our vacation plans. Remember?’

‘Oh, yes, Gavin, I remember, but it’s Gee.’

‘Your twin Geraldine?’

‘Yes. Gee is getting married, Gavin. I’ve had a letter. But before she does, she wants to bring the family up here.’

‘Family?’ he queried.

‘Her husband-to-be is widowed, and there are three children.’

‘I see. But why here? Is the actual ceremony to be here?’

‘Gee didn’t say that, she simply wants me to—well—’

‘Yes, my dear?’

‘Do a job with the children, Gavin. Sort of win them over, if you understand.’

‘I don’t.’

‘No, and I don’t, either,’ Jo had admitted. ‘Geraldine could win anybody with her arms tied back. Thank heaven you met me before you saw her!’ Jo had laughed generously.

Gavin had not laughed. He had said properly: ‘It would have made no difference, my dear.’

‘But she’s beautiful.’

‘So are you.’

‘But Gee’s
really
beautiful. I mean
glitteringly
so.’

‘Then I wouldn’t care for her,’ Gavin had said definitely. ‘I prefer understatement, restraint.’

‘She has brains, too,’ Joe had continued. ‘Gee got all the intelligence, Gavin. No mere typing in an office for Geraldine.’

‘That I wouldn’t like, either. I don’t object to intellectual equality between the sexes, but I certainly don’t go for this so-called female superiority.’

‘Yet you would go for Gee,’ had sighed Jo. ‘You couldn’t help yourself.’

‘My dear, I love
you.
If you’re unsure, then look down at your finger—no, not now,’ an annoyed frown, ‘not in office hours. There’s a time and a place. Instead let us get this foolish request of yours in its right perspective. You seriously want to take time off to help your sister with her future family?’

‘Well, put that way—’

‘Is there another way?’

‘I expect not, Gavin.’

‘Then?’

‘Then yes, I want time off.’

‘It’s all ridiculous, but I suppose I must say Yes. Yet what on earth you will do to help I can’t imagine. To begin with you’ve only a very small flat.’

‘But I’ll be going out to the plantation, Gavin, out to The Tender Winds of Spring.’

‘Where?’

‘I’m sorry, Gavin, we made that up at the age of eleven. We were ... I mean Geraldine was going through a Japanese stage. It was her last stage. Previous to The Tender Winds the homestead had been Bar 14, The Manor House, Casa Venusta—’

‘I see,’ Gavin had interrupted a little impatiently. ‘Returning to this peculiar request of your sister’s.’

‘Geraldine’s.’

‘Exactly. What will you do out there?’

Jo had furrowed her brow and shrugged. ‘Just chatter, I expect, muck around, include the juniors. Oh, Gavin, I don’t know precisely what we’ll do. I only know it’s what Gee has asked.’

‘And what Geraldine wants she gets?’

‘I expect so,’ Jo had said fondly.

There had been a slightly pained silence. Then:

‘Am I to understand she wants this—er—Tender Winds, too?’ Gavin had looked a little foolish saying it, for after all it was a silly tag.

‘Oh, no, Gavin, how could she? The old house belongs, and always has belonged, to the current plantation owner. Also, it’s of no value, it’s as ancient as the hills and ready to be pulled down. Aunt and Uncle Mitchell who reared us only lived there because Uncle was the banana foreman. He never owned The Tender ... I mean he never owned the place.’

‘Yet your aunt and uncle have passed on years ago?’

‘Yes, but none of the subsequent banana
bosses
ever used it or ever stopped us from going to it. I guess they never had any use for such a chaos.’ Jo had smiled affectionately to herself. ‘Lovable chaos,’ she had said.

‘The Mitchells were not really your aunt and uncle, were they?’ Gavin had asked, ignoring that ‘lovable chaos’.

‘No. Our parents were botanists,
distinguished botanists,
very clever people. Gee, of course, took after them; in fact, coming first, she took so much there was only a little left for me. Brains, I mean,’ Jo had laughed.

Gavin had said firmly: ‘I prefer a woman your way, my dear. I dislike too much female know-how.’

‘Well,’ Jo had grinned, ‘you have to now, don’t you?’ She had smiled fondly on him.

‘The parents,’ she had continued, ‘were botanising in the banana country, not far from the house, when our mother discovered she was pregnant. It was something she hadn’t planned for, so when, later, the event turned out a double event, it was the utter end.’

‘Why my dear?’

‘She was highly intellectual, Gavin,’ Jo had pointed out. ‘Imagine being suddenly thrust into double motherhood when you didn’t plan on any at all, wouldn’t you—well—’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ Gavin had said quite stiffly, ‘but I do have private views on such things.’

‘Well, she did, too, our mother did, and so did our father. It all finished up with Aunt and Uncle Mitchell looking after us while Mother accompanied Father on a very important botanical assignment to New Guinea, from which, alas, both poor dears never came back. A canoe mishap.’ She sighed. ‘Of course, we can’t recall them, but the Mitchells said they were charming-plus, something else that Gee got. Anyway, we were reared in the big banana country by Aunt and Uncle Mitchell, and it was a good life and it’s a glorious place. I don’t blame Gee for bringing her family up to consolidate things before the final plunge.’ Jo had looked at her fiancé-boss and implored: ‘A week off, Gavin?’

‘Certainly a week off, my dear, if it will help and if it will please you.’

‘It will help and it will please me. Thank you for ever. Will you come out and meet them, Gavin?’

Gavin had actually twinkled at her. Twinkling during office hours! ‘Do you think that’s safe,’ he had teased, ‘after all you’ve told me about your twin?’

‘Nothing and nobody is safe with Gee,’ Jo had admitted, ‘but I’ll take the risk if you will.’

‘No risk at all.’ Gavin had looked at her fondly.

Jo recalled the fondness now with due satisfaction, recalled it as she drove through perhaps the most lushly beautiful country in all Australia. Australia was never classified as lush, it was labelled vital, arresting, a last frontier, sometimes even cruelly lovely. But here there was lushness.

It was hilly, often quite mountainous country, small yet sharp mountains, descending giddily to deep little valleys. It had to be up and down terrain like this, for bananas demanded well-drained roots. They loved rain, but the rain must run off. These steep slopes with their sub-tropical warmth provided ideal conditions. Here the bananas flourished, clinging to the dizzy hillsides like mountain climbers, their shellacked palm leaves making a study in shining emerald green, except where bluebell-blue plastic covers had been added to protect the fruit as the huge bunches approached maturity.

These bunches had always been a source of amusement to the twins. Most city people had expected the bananas to grow downwards, whereas, of course, they grew up. When visitors had come to The Tender Winds the girls had stopped close to hear the inevitable: ‘But I thought they would grow the other way round.’

The bananas at this point of the New South Wales coast were the big ones. The Eights, they were called at market, and it meant eight inches compared to fruit of a much smaller size. They were firm, golden (freckled brown if permitted to sun-ripen) and as sweet as a dream. Beautiful nature-protected fruit, gloated Jo now, for where else could you see such natural packaging? Beautiful country. Her country. Jo rounded a rutted bend, and as she did so she heard a crash.

The noise saddened her a little. It would be a forest giant being felled somewhere, from the very loud sound of the impact quite a large fellow. As well as bananas, there was a lot of timber activity around here. Still ... she gave a little resigned shrug ... bananas had to be grown, so mountains had to be cleared; Life had to be lived.

Jo turned a final bend to the old homestead, The Tender Winds of Spring. The house, Jo knew gratefully now, where a kindly old couple had reared two orphaned girls.

She halted the car and sat looking at the house for a few moments, loving it, remembering things that had happened in it to Gee and to herself, Gee always the ringleader, the darling, the first. Gee, having done all she wanted to, or so it seemed, now becoming a wife and a mother of three at twenty. Silently Jo thanked the ‘lovable chaos’ for the joys it had brought her, but the most precious of all, she knew in that moment, was the joy of Gee asking her for help. That was the wonderful part for Jo, Geraldine coming to Josephine for help. That, and Gee’s admission of her love for her Mark, for Gee had never been effusive.

‘Oh, darling,’ Jo said aloud, deeply touched, very proud, ‘you’ll have my help, be sure of that. You already have my love, and, knowing you, you certainly would have your Mark’s. Later the children’s. Who couldn’t love you, Gee?’

She reached for the house key, got out of the car, climbed the shallow front steps and entered the old plantation house. She was thinking: Home again. She was wishing it could last like that.

The Tender Winds of Spring had been built back in the days when people did not count up the cost of a house from neat plans but simply ordered somewhere in which to live. That the finished product turned out more than ample, had huge verandahs on every side, a preponderance of chimneys (that in this climate were never used) was an understood thing. Also, of course, a great bam of a kitchen with a huge black fuel stove. Unlike most modern girls, Jo did not flinch at the fuel stove. She had been reared with the black beast, as it had been known, and understood its many moods, mostly cranky. She knew by now how to bring it to a glowing heat, how to channel the heat where it was required. How to produce dishes that modern stoves would envy. So she patted it fondly now as she went past to open up the bedrooms and fling wide the windows.

There were six bedrooms, which should do perfectly. One for Mark, one for Gee and herself since they would certainly chatter at night as they always had, one for Dicky, one for the girls and one for Gavin should he visit them at the week-end. That left one over, which was what Aunt Mitchell had always advised. ‘An empty room,’ she had said, ‘in case.’

There were a lot of Aunt Mitchell wisdoms echoing through the quiet hall! Uncle Mitchell, too, though his had been more to do with the outside. One of the most important Aunt Mitchell wisdoms, and one Jo intended following now, was to fill the house with the smell of baking.

‘There is nothing,’ Aunt Mitchell had proclaimed, ‘
nothing
like the smell of hot cakes being turned out.’

All the way down to Tender Winds, Jo had planned what she would cook and when she would start cooking. She wanted to coincide her ‘turning out’ with the family’s arrival. That would be a welcome indeed, she had thought.

Firstly Banana Cake. Up in Big Banana Country everyone made banana cakes. Why not, with the fruit hanging at their back doors? Then, she had planned, a brownie for hungry souls, large, substantial, studded with raisins and standing plenty of cutting. Finally, and most importantly, gingerbread men. Gee had said that it mightn’t be all roses, meaning the children could be difficult, but no children on earth, Jo firmly believed, could remain difficult in the tangy presence of a gingerbread man.

She started the oven with some kindling that she always left ready (another result of Aunt Mitchell’s ‘in case’) and pulled out the required knobs. When the kindling took on she added some deep chunks of wood guaranteed to make a range really worthwhile, then, as the blaze got under way, she made up the beds.

BOOK: The Tender Winds of Spring
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