Small Town Blues
‘I wonder what your new friends like to eat,’ Gail asked her husband as she peered into the refrigerator. ‘Do you think they’re likely to prefer steak or chicken kebabs?’
‘I have no idea,’ Ray replied. ‘They’re not really friends. I only met Bob at the Rotary meeting and I thought it’d be neighbourly to ask him and his wife to a barbecue, as they don’t know anyone in town.’
‘Have you met his wife?’
‘No, but I know her name’s Jenny.’
‘You said they haven’t been in town long. Do you know where they come from?’
‘Yes. Bob told me they’ve moved up here from Sydney.’
‘Oh! From Sydney? I wonder what brought them to a small town like this?’
Bob shrugged. ‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Oh. Well, if they come from the city they probably prefer steak.’
As Gail busied herself in the kitchen she wondered what they would be like. Newcomers to the district were more common these days, with all the
tree-changers moving up from Sydney. Well, today would be a good chance to get to know them.
By midday all was ready. Ray poured them both a glass of wine and they were standing on the terrace at the back of the house, drinks in hand, when their guests arrived. They went to meet them with welcoming smiles.
‘Glad you could make it,’ Ray boomed, shaking Bob’s hand.
‘We’ve been looking forward to coming,’ Bob replied, then turned to his companion, ‘and this is my wife Jenny.’
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ Gail told her.
‘It’s good of you to ask us,’ Jenny said. ‘We don’t really know anyone here yet.’
Gail tried to put her at ease. ‘It’s always hard settling in to a new place, isn’t it? You’re from Sydney, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, we are. When Bob was offered a transfer to Newcastle we thought it was a good opportunity to get out of the rat race. And Newcastle is so big now we decided to look for somewhere smaller and friendlier to live. So here we are.’
‘Good to have you. Now come and sit over here with me while Ray gets you a drink. It’s a bit much meeting new people, I know, but I’m sure you’ll find everyone’s friendly in this town.’
The men moved across to stand by the barbecue and Gail and Jenny seated themselves by the table, which Gail had already set for lunch. Their conversation was general for a while, and then turned to current television programmes.
‘Do you ever watch the ‘Antiques Roadshow’?’ Gail asked.
Jenny’s face lit up. ‘Oh yes, I love it! I never miss it when I’m home. I collect antiques, so I find it interesting seeing all the different items that people bring along. I’ve heard it might be coming to Sydney soon. If it does I’ll go down and have a look.’
Gail was excited. ‘Oh, if it does come, I’d love to go. I’d take my great-grand mother’s brooch for them to have a look at. I’ve always thought it might be worth a bit. It must be fairly old.’
Jenny seemed impressed. ‘Your great-grandmother’s brooch. Oh, I wonder if it’s nineteenth century.’
‘Would you know?’
‘Well, I’m not an expert, but I might.’
‘Would you like to see it?’ Gail jumped up. “I’ll go and get it.’
Rummaging through her jewellery box, she found the brooch beneath a tangled pile of beads. It was gold filigree, heart-shaped and set with small turquoise stones around the edges and a large turquoise in the centre. Then she went into the lounge room and took a photo from amongst several on a table. Marching outside she placed both items in front of Jenny.
‘What do you think? I’ve always thought the brooch must be at least a hundred years old. Here’s a photo of my great-grandmother nursing my grandmother when she was two, and she was wearing it then, pinned to her dress. It shows up quite plainly. See?’
‘Yes. I’d say it’s almost certainly nineteenth century,’ Jenny exclaimed.
‘Do you know how much it’d be worth?’
Jenny picked the brooch up and turned it around, examining it, touching each blue stone.
‘It’s hard to say. As I said, I’m not an expert, but it is beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier piece of antique jewellery.’
Gail beamed. Here was a lady with good taste.
‘So do you think it’d be worth taking to the show?’
‘Certainly. They’d be able to tell you what it is worth. And they always like provenance, the photo gives you that.’
At that moment Ray called out. ‘Hey Gail. Look at those clouds. Looks like a storm building up. We’d better get the food under way.’
Gail looked up, then pushed back her chair. ‘You’re right. I’ll bring it out.’
Jenny jumped up. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’
Within minutes they were ferrying food out from the kitchen. Ray had the barbecue hot and in no time the steaks were sizzling, while the clouds grew darker.
They finished their meal and were starting to clear the table when the first drops of rain fell. Everyone grabbed what they could off the table and hurried inside. By the time they were ready to go back for the rest the rain was pelting down. They stood by the windows looking out as it saturated the table cloth and started to collect in the remaining plates and glasses.
‘Leave the rest; we can’t go out in that,’ Gail told them, drawing the curtains. ‘There’re only dirty dishes left; the rain won’t hurt them. Come up front and sit in the lounge.’
It took an hour for the deluge to cease, and then Bob rose from his chair. ‘Come on Jenny. I think we’d better make a dash for it while we can.’
Jenny gathered up her bag. ‘I’ll just go to the bathroom and I’ll be with you,’ she told him, disappearing through the door.
In a few moments she was back and they all moved to the front door, saying their goodbyes.
When they had gone Gail closed the door behind them and went into the kitchen. Pulling back the curtains she grimaced at the sight of the sodden table. Picking up a tray she went out and set it down, and began tipping water from the dishes and loading them onto the tray, then stripped off the tablecloth, wringing it to remove as much water as she could. ‘Thank goodness for dishwashers and washing machines,’ she muttered as she tossed the wet cloth into the laundry trough.
Later, as they sat watching television, Ray looked across at her during a commercial break. ‘So, what did Jenny think of your great-grannie’s brooch?’ he asked. ‘Did she think it’d be worth taking to the ‘Antiques Roadshow’?’
‘Yes, she was impressed. She said…’ Gail stopped suddenly, frowning. ‘The brooch. Where did it end up? I don’t remember what happened to it in the end.’
‘I suppose you took it in and put it away.’
‘No, I didn’t. Let me think. We were looking at it and then you sang out about the storm coming and we both hopped up and came in to bring out the food. I don’t remember seeing it again.’
‘I saw it on the table when we were eating. It was lying between the sauces and things.’
‘Did you see what happened to it after that?’
‘No. I didn’t notice.’
Ray turned the sound up again as the programme recommenced. ‘I suppose someone picked it up and brought it inside when you were clearing things away.’
Gail went into the kitchen and looked around. She couldn’t see the blue brooch on any of the counters although the photo stood alongside the sink. She checked inside the cupboards and then she went outside, but there was no sign of the brooch.
“You must’ve taken it back to the bedroom,’ Ray told her when she reported back to him.
Gail shook her head. ‘No. I didn’t.’
‘Maybe you forgot you put it away.’
Gail didn’t think so, but she went to the bedroom to check. No brooch. She marched back into the lounge.
‘Ray! Turn that off!’
Ray frowned at her. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘My brooch. It’s gone! Someone’s stolen it.’
Ray turned back to the television. ‘Don’t be silly. It’ll turn up.’
Gail was angry now. ‘This is serious. I tell you, someone’s stolen it.’
‘Don’t be stupid. Who would steal it? Show some sense! I tell you, it’ll turn up.’
‘We don’t really know Jenny and Bob.’
‘Come off it, Gail. Bob’s a member of Rotary, they’re nice people. They wouldn’t take your brooch.’
Gail drew a deep breath. ‘Jenny was pretty taken with it. She said it was the prettiest antique jewellery she’d ever seen.’
‘That doesn’t mean she took it.’
‘It must have been her. There was no-one else here. I’m going to call the police.’
‘Show some bloody sense, will you. You can’t go around accusing people of stealing. There’s absolutely no reason to think she took it.’
Gail reached for the phone. ‘I’m going to call the police.’
Ray grabbed her arm before she could pick up the phone. ‘No you’re not! Tomorrow you have a real good look around. I tell you, it’ll turn up. Now keep quiet and let me watch the news.’
The next day Gail searched the garden and house thoroughly, but the brooch had gone. Well, she was not going to let that sly bitch get away with it. If she called the police now, they might catch her with it. She picked up the phone.
Gail was a bit put out that she had to go to the police station to make a report. And even more so when the police sergeant refused to accept her story that Jenny had taken the brooch.
‘There’s no evidence to support your theory,’ he told her. ‘I’ll note that the brooch is missing, but it’s not certain it was stolen. You may have misplaced it. Or someone may have picked it up and taken it inside when you were clearing up. Perhaps it was accidentally placed in the rubbish. Did you search your bin?”
Gail admitted she had not.
‘Then I suggest you go home and do that. But even if it was stolen, you were all inside for some time, you say. Someone could easily have come around then, seen it on the table and picked it up.’
‘But no one else knew it was there.’
‘It could have been someone just prowling around, you’ve got a lot of trees around where you live. I’ll put all this in my report and it’ll be on the missing goods list we circulate. Now, if I can have a full description of the missing item, please.’
When Gail arrived home she went to the rubbish bin and hauled out the bag she had tossed in earlier. Undoing the twist top, she dumped it all onto a sheet of newspaper and worked her way through the refuse, searching for the colour blue. The only item she found of that colour was the top from a milk container.
The filthy job put her into an even filthier frame of mind. Flinging on her coat, she stomped her way down to the Post Office, so she could have a talk with her friend Moira, who was the postmistress.
‘Well, you look upset,’ Moira told her as she walked up to the counter. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I’ve every reason to be upset. I’ve lost my great-grandmother’s antique brooch. Well, not lost it, actually. It’s been stolen.’
‘Stolen! When? How?’
‘Yesterday. We had those new people, Jenny and Bob, to our place for a barbecue lunch. Have you met them yet?’
‘I’ve met Jenny. She was in here a few days ago. And Jim met Bob at Rotary.’
‘Yes, that’s where Ray met him too. I wish he hadn’t. I’d still have my brooch.’
‘What do you mean? You’re not saying one of them stole it, are you?’
‘Well, somebody’s stolen it. I’m not accusing anyone, but there were only those two there, and Jenny was very taken with it. She didn’t actually say it was worth a lot of money, but she certainly implied that. She said it was the best antique brooch she’d ever seen, and she collects antiques.’
Gail went on to tell Moira the story of the barbecue and the storm. ‘And after they’d gone I finished clearing up and the brooch was missing. I searched everywhere and it’s not in the house. Someone took it, and there were only the four of us. So what do you think?’
‘Like you, I wouldn’t want to accuse anyone, but it couldn’t have got up and walked away by itself, could it? And if there were only the four of you…well…’ Moira broke off and shrugged. ‘Hmm. I wonder if anyone else has lost anything. I might ask around a bit.’
When Ray came home he was angry to learn she had been to the police, but when she told him the brooch was only reported as lost, he dismissed it, then settled in his chair to watch the news.
The following Sunday he came back from the local store with the newspaper in his hand and a scowl on his face. He confronted Gail in the kitchen. ‘Have you been spreading stories about Jenny and that confounded brooch?’
Gail looked at him warily. ‘I might have mentioned to a couple of people that it was funny the way it disappeared. Just to my friends, you know.’
‘Well, I was speaking to Bob in the shop, and he told me Jenny’s unhappy. Apparently people are avoiding her because they think she stole your brooch. She’s terribly distressed about it. He had to take her to the doctor to get some pills to calm her down. He’s very upset.’
‘Well, she shouldn’t have stolen the brooch!’
Ray’s face reddened. ‘I told you, you have no evidence whatsoever that she had anything to do with your brooch going missing. You might have put it down somewhere yourself and then forgotten about it. Or it could have gone out with the rubbish or…’
‘I checked the rubbish myself,’ Gail interrupted.
‘Whatever. If I hear you say again that she stole it, it’ll be me who gets upset. I never saw you wear the bloody thing, anyway.’
Gail shifted uncomfortably. ‘That’s not the point. Anyway, I don’t want to discuss it any more. It upsets me.’
‘Hmmph.’ With a grunt Ray took the paper into the lounge and started reading.
It was three weeks later when Gail heard the latest news at the Post Office.
‘Have you heard about Bob and Jenny?’ Moira asked her.
‘No. What about them?’
‘They’ve put their house on the market. They say they’ve had enough of this town. They’re moving down to Newcastle. Jenny was taken to hospital on Wednesday. It looks like she tried to commit suicide. She took an overdose of some tablets she’d been prescribed for depression.’
Gail felt a jolt to her stomach. Her hand shook as she took the stamps from Moira. ‘How terrible,’ she mumbled as Moira turned away to serve another customer. Gail hurried home and that night she went to bed early with a headache.
After breakfast on Saturday Ray put down his paper and looked at her with concern.
‘You look a bit pale,’ he said. ‘I think you need some fresh air. Come on, we’ll go for a walk down by the river.’
Gail brightened. A walk in the sunshine was just what she needed. Her spirits lifted as she put on walking shoes and a hat.
Their walk took them through a reserve leading to the water’s edge. As they walked along the winding trail, Ray spied a mound in among the trees. ‘Look,’ he exclaimed. ‘A bower bird’s nest. Getting ready for mating time. I wonder what he’s managed to scavenge this time. Come and have a look. He’s not there now.’
Gail followed him through the bushes. As he reached the mound he whistled softly. ‘Well, what do you know!’
‘What is it?’ she asked as he bent over and picked up something from inside the nest.
Turning around, he held out his fist, turned it over and opened his hand. To her dismay, there in Ray’s palm lay a golden heart-shaped brooch, studded with turquoises.