By Wendy Taylor
It sat on a shelf in Dad’s wardrobe and each time I went in to grab a jacket to put on him when we went out for a walk, I saw it there. A bible. I had never really given it a second thought assuming it to be a family bible which is why Dad had kept it.
Now that Dad was gone and I was clearing out his room at the nursing home, I needed to deal with it. I lifted it down, almost dropping it, as I had to stretch as far as my arm would go being short and the pages flapped open
Something slipped from the pages and fluttered to the floor. A photo, no, two photos. They were both black and white. I placed the bible on the bed and picked them up. The first was of a woman dressed in a lusciously patterned, off the shoulder, mid-calf, ball dress sitting on a high stool. Her head tilted seductively, luminous eyes half closed, long dark hair grazing bare shoulders and tumbling down her back. Her dark skin glowed, a contrast to the white gloves on her slender hands and pearls encircled a swan neck. Her ankles were elegantly crossed. A studio photo. I turned the photo over. “Esme,” it said.” in loopy handwriting. My father’s handwriting. Now my interest was piqued. Esme, who was Esme? I focused my attention on the other photo. This was a couple. I recognised my father instantly, although from my childhood rather than of late. Dark haired, hook nose, tall and loose limbed. He had his arms around a woman and was gazing at her enraptured. The woman was Esme. I turned the photo over. “Harry and Esme, Village Ball 1956,” it said in the same loopy handwriting. The woman Esme apparently seemed to have the same dress on as in the professional photo. I turned my attention to the bible. Opening it I saw a handwritten note in my father’s writing again on the inside cover. “For my dearest Esme, yours forever Harry.’
I frowned. My mind jostled with questions. What, when, how, but mostly who.
Who was Esme? How could I find out?
I realised that would be easy. Down the hall was Dad’s brother John. They started out living together as children in the family home as you do, then went their separate ways as adults and then found themselves back living together in the same nursing home. Until Dad died last week that is. Uncle John should be able to give me the answers. He had no idea what he did yesterday or even this morning but due to dementia, I am picking he should remember this Young Farmers Club Ball like it had just happened.
Clutching the photos in now sweating hands I scuttled off to find Uncle John. He was usually in his room rocking in a wipe clean chair, drifting in and out of memories. I knew he would not recognise me but felt certain he would recognise Esme.
My hunch proved correct.
Uncle John took the photo of Esme from my outstretched hand, in his gnarled sun spotted one.
‘Esme,’ he rasped. ‘The lovely Esme. Boy Harry struck gold there. All the lads were keen on Esme, but she only had eyes for Harry, lucky sod.’
I so badly wanted to ask a million questions but I knew I had to keep quiet.
Uncle John went on. ‘That was the Village Ball of ’56. Everyone came from miles around. We all had our glad rags on. No jeans and tee shirts like today. Us lads wore suits and the lassies, well, they were a sight for sore eyes. Like princesses in dresses, they had saved up for weeks to buy gloves and grandma’s pearls and perfume that made your eyes water. But Esme outshone them all. A right beauty.’
He stopped and coughed, chest heaving and closed his eyes, humming an old-time tune. Probably one played at the ball. I shook him gently but it seems that was all I was going to get today.
Over the next two days I finished clearing out Dad’s room. Clothes and books to the charity shop, documents and photos of Mum, me, an only child, and my boys, chucked in the car to go back to the city with me.
In between I trotted down to Uncle John’s room with the photos of Esme. He did not acknowledge me, but needed no prompting, associating me with Esme as soon as I walked in the door
The second visit unearthed a little more.
‘Girls came from far and wide and the cities to score themselves a farmer,’ Uncle John cackled. ‘Your dad was hot meat. Handsome as, and everyone knew he was due to take over the family farm. Esme was no different, she was after a farmer.’
And that was it, Uncle John was asleep again.
I sighed and went back to clearing out Dad’s stuff, thinking about Esme and all those girls trying to score themselves a farmer. Dad certainly would have been a catch. As the eldest he had inherited the family farm.
The next day Uncle John seemed glad to see me. It was like talking about Esme was getting a great secret off his chest. I had the feeling her name had not been mentioned for decades.
‘She worked at the post Office,’ he said. ‘Harry went in there fortnightly to deposit cash or get out wages for the shearers and other seasonal workers. They were smitten with each other from day one. She came out to the farm often. A breath of fresh air, always singing and dancing. I thought she was fabulous although I did not get to see her much as I was still away at boarding school. She seemed terribly exotic and grown up being from the city. No one was surprised when they announced their engagement at the Ball even though they were only nineteen.’
‘What! Engagement!’ The words erupted from my lips.
Uncle John continued like he hadn’t heard. I suspect he hadn’t. He was well in the past.
“The wedding was huge. It was held at St Laurence’s.’
The blood whooshed from my body and I put out a tentative hand on Uncle John’s arm to steady myself. So was Mum and Dad’s in 1966.
‘Are you sure,’ I whispered.
He was muddled now I was certain.
Uncle John’s light blue eyes lit up. ‘Biggest do the area had seen for ages. The wedding breakfast was at our woolshed and Dad had to open up three paddocks for all the cars.
I shook my head, confusion swirled.
‘What was he on about? Dad had a wife before Mum.’
My heart thudded, betrayed by someone I thought I knew.
John was speaking again. ‘But she couldn’t handle it. The dust, flies, the isolation. An hour out of town was just too far. She wasn’t a Country Women’s Institute kinda gal. She hated baking and cooking for the shearers and other farmworkers. Gardening and preserving are also not her thing. Nobody really knew what her thing was but we could all see she was miserable and lonely. She missed all her town friends and working. And she missed her family. So, she took off. Back to her family up north. Took the kid with her. Terry? Todd? No Tony. That was it. He was called Tony. Spitting image of Harry.’
‘A kid. Dad had another kid.’
‘Never heard from her again. Pity. She was lovely. Harry never got over her.’
With that Uncle John drifted off again.
An hour later I was swinging my car onto the motorway. I was due back at work. I couldn’t stay any longer. A bible on the passenger seat, two photos tucked inside. I could not decide whether I felt betrayed or intrigued that my father had been married and had a family before, me and my mother. Someone he had never gotten over according to Uncle John. My breath caught in my throat and I coughed to release the tension. Questions jumped around in my head.
‘Was Esme still alive? Did she still go by Mrs Esme Winter or had she reverted to her maiden name, or married again? Where was my half-brother? Will I try to track them down, use a private investigator like on Tv programmes about finding lost family?’
A shiver of excitement ran up my spine. How cool would it be to find my half-brother and his mother, the love of my father’s life?
But in reality, I knew I would do nothing.
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