I caught the school bus home with Ellen on Friday after school. It was very noisy on the bus with all of the children talking and squealing loudly all the way. Every few minutes the bus would stop along the road and a couple of children would climb off, before the doors shut and we would start off again with a jerk.
‘Mum, we’re home,’ Ellen shouted as we walked through the back door. The screen slammed shut behind us. The kitchen was bright and sunny and the late afternoon light shining through the window made the bowls on the bench sparkle. It was the cleanest kitchen I had ever seen, with everything neatly in its place. Beside the kitchen bench there was a large grey tabby cat that was curled up on the floor sound asleep. A ginger cat sat beside Mrs Lees’ legs, looking up and watching her moving around the kitchen sink. Ellen’s baby brother was sitting in a high chair and waving a plastic spoon around.
‘Hi, sweetheart. Hello, Molly. You girls can put your bags in the bedroom then come out and have some afternoon tea.’ Ellen led the way down the hall to her bedroom and we put our bags down on the floor then ran back to the kitchen. Mrs Lees had left a slice of orange cake and a glass of milk on the kitchen bench for each of us and I was glad to climb onto a stool and rest my legs while I ate.
‘Okay girls,’ said Ellen’s mother, ‘When you are finished you need to fetch the eggs and then wash up before dinner.’
I watched Mrs Lees moving around the kitchen as I ate my afternoon tea. It was the first time I had met her. She had long brown hair that was tied back in a pony tail. It made her look quite young and pretty. Her skin was smooth and tanned and her mouth looked kind. She was clearly Ellen’s mother because the same pair of brown eyes smiled gently at me across the kitchen bench that I was used to seeing in the school playground.
She was stirring something in a bowl and the ginger cat stood up and rubbed his face against her leg before he walked over to the bench and rubbed himself against my foot. I bent down and patted him on the head and he closed his eyes and purred. Ellen’s baby brother made gurgling noises as he waved the spoon around and smiled at me.
‘Come on, Molly, let’s go,’ said Ellen as she put her glass down on the sink. I hopped off the stool and put my glass carefully beside hers and followed her outside. The screen door banged shut behind me as I raced to catch up with Ellen.
The chicken coop was at the back of the yard and its smell reminded me of the chicken shed I had seen at the show. Some of the chickens squawked loudly as Ellen opened the gate, and when she took a handful of oats from a bag and spread them around on the ground they all flapped around her and made a big fuss. ‘Here, chook chook chook,’ she called, as she threw the little seeds on the ground. As the chickens were busy scrabbling after the grain, Ellen and I searched amongst the straw for the smooth brown eggs. She showed me how to carry the eggs by holding up the skirt of my school dress to make a little basket. I placed three eggs in my skirt basket and walked very carefully back to the house, making sure I didn’t drop any on the way.
It was dark by the time Ellen’s father came into the house and Ellen and I had already been in the bath and changed into our pyjamas. The baby had been put to sleep in his cot and the rest of us sat at the dining table and ate dinner in silence. I couldn’t help thinking how different it was to dinnertime at home where the television was always on in the background and the girls were talking all the time. We sat at a large wooden table covered with a lace tablecloth and there was a nice warm log fire crackling in the background.
I was a little scared of Mr Lees as I watched him slicing the roast beef. He had dark curly hair and eyes that looked at me from under thick black eyebrows. Every now and then I could hear his heavy boots shuffle around on the wooden floor. I looked down at his dirty trousers and thought about how they contrasted with the clean white lace of the table cloth.
‘How did you go at school today, girls?’ Mr Lees asked in a stern voice.
‘It was okay,’ Ellen replied calmly. She picked up the sauce jug and tipped some gravy onto her roast.
‘What about you, Molly?’
‘Oh, it was fine.’ I spoke very quietly. My heart was beating fast and I was afraid to look at him.
‘Sorry, what was that? You’ll have to speak up,’ he said. His voice sounded very gruff and when I lifted my head I couldn’t take my eyes off his boney looking fingernails.
‘She said it was okay,’ said Ellen, spearing a potato with her fork.
‘I was talking to Molly.’ He didn’t take his eyes off me and his hands were still holding the carving knife.
I tried to speak again but my tongue felt as thick as a sausage and I had a sick feeling in my stomach. He kept staring at me, waiting for an answer, until suddenly the telephone rang and broke the silence. Mr Lees put the knife down and went to answer the phone. He was gone for a few minutes and when he came back and sat down he complained loudly to Mrs Lees about the high price of something. ‘How are we meant to make money when it costs twice as much as what we get for the crop?’ he growled. He seemed to have forgotten all about me and as soon as we finished eating, Ellen and I were excused from the table.
We raced down the hallway to Ellen’s bedroom and sat on our beds talking until Mrs Lees came in and told us it was time to go to sleep. Ellen’s bedroom was long and skinny, with a bed on either side. At one end of the room there was a bookcase and a small desk while the other end had a dressing table covered with dolls. We lay in our beds and smiled at each other and kept talking in whispers, even after Mrs Lees had come back and turned the light out. It was amazing how our conversations could start with one thing and then float around like a butterfly going from flower to flower. Every now and then we would stop and try to work out how the conversation had flowed before giggling quietly from under our blankets.
We eventually stopped talking and I had drifted off to sleep, when I was suddenly woken by a loud voice coming through the bedroom wall. I couldn’t understand what the voices were saying but I could hear that Mr Lees sounded angry about something and his voice rattled the walls like a bass drum. Mrs Lees was harder to hear with her desperate soprano. Soon there was a loud bang and then silence. I looked across at Ellen but she had her back to me and seemed to be sleeping so I just lay there in the darkness and watched her breathing body moving up and down under the blanket until my eyes started to get heavy.
It was early morning when I woke the next day and I lay in bed and watched the curtain moving slightly in the breeze coming through the open window. Outside the window I could see the sun had started to paint the sky with pink and orange. The colours were reflecting on the bedroom wall, shimmering like fairy lights. I looked across at Ellen’s sleeping face where it was bathed in a soft pink fairy light that made her look so beautiful.
Somewhere in the distance a dog was barking and I could hear sheep baaing just outside the bedroom window. The smell of bacon and eggs came drifting through the doorway and it made my tummy start to grumble.
Eventually Ellen woke up and we climbed out of bed and walked out to the kitchen together to find Mrs Lees standing over a frypan cooking breakfast.
‘Good morning girls, I hope you slept well.’ Her eyes looked red and there seemed to be a mark on the side of her pale face. Ellen gave her mother a hug and I thought I saw a tear forming in Mrs Lees’ eye. ‘Breakfast won’t be long,’ she said briskly, as she wiped the back of her hand across her eyes.
Ellen and I climbed onto the stools at the kitchen bench and we were soon munching on a huge plateful of bacon and eggs. No-one talked as we ate so I just watched Mrs Lees moving around the kitchen. She didn’t seem so bright and sparkly as she had yesterday afternoon.
After breakfast, we set off to explore around the farm. Ellen’s world seemed to be really huge to me as we walked from paddock to paddock. She chatted away as we walked and pointed to all the different parts of the farm. She told me the front paddock that we had walked through yesterday was sown to wheat over the winter. I could just see the green shoots starting to appear from the clods of dirt. Over the summer months, she said, sheep would graze the stubble after the crop was harvested.
At the bottom of the paddock was an old house that Ellen said was haunted. It looked really spooky and I didn’t want to go near it, but Ellen insisted on having a look through the window. I stood nervously on the edge of the verandah while she stood on her tippy toes and peered through the dusty window. She said it was too dirty to see inside so she was going to try the door.
‘No Ellen,’ I said quickly. ‘Come on, let’s go.’
‘Aw, c’mon Molly. I’ll just be a minute.’
I could hear the door creak as she pushed it open. I squeezed my legs together in agony. The inside of the house was dark but I could see a dusty old arm chair facing the doorway, like it was waiting for its owner to return. Ellen stuck her head inside for a moment before changing her mind.
‘Maybe we should do this another time,’ she decided. Suddenly there was a noise inside, like the sound of something being knocked over and hitting the floor. I’m not sure who was first to run but we were both tearing across the paddock as fast as we could. My gumboots were flopping against my legs as I ran, stumbling across clods of ploughed dirt. I was sure there was a monster after us and I could hear Ellen breathing heavily beside me.
It was only after we reached the other side of the gate that we stopped and looked back. The ginger cat that had been in the kitchen yesterday was watching us from the open door of the haunted house. He opened his mouth and yawned.
I looked at Ellen and her brown eyes were laughing. ‘It was only the cat. Why did you run?’ she laughed.
‘You ran too,’ I said and giggled.
‘That’s because you started running.’
We laughed at ourselves and walked off holding hands until we saw Ellen’s father walking across a paddock hunting for rabbits with his ferrets and dogs. We sat hidden in the long grass and watched him from a distance. Ellen explained how the ferrets were sent down the rabbit burrows and the dogs caught the rabbits as they shot out the other end. I watched as one cute and furry grey creature launched out of a burrow.
‘Oh my gosh, there’s one,’ I pointed excitedly. Suddenly one of the dogs pounced on it and brought the rabbit to Mr Lees. He took it from the dog’s mouth and I was horrified when he broke the poor thing’s neck and put it in a bag. One moment it was so full of life and activity, and the next its body was slumped like a piece of old rag. I felt so sad for the little rabbit and wished it had gotten away. All I could think about was the bruise on the side of Mrs Lees’ face.
Still in shock, I let Ellen lead me away to a smaller paddock in front of the house where her mother’s car was parked. ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea,’ she said as she climbed into the car. I thought we were going to pretend that we were driving but Ellen was able to start the car by turning the key.
‘Can you drive?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Watch this’.
We drove around and around the paddock a couple of times; Ellen was laughing her head off, but I was a little scared. Suddenly we slid to a stop. Ellen revved the engine but we didn’t move as the car bogged in the freshly ploughed dirt.
Everyone was quiet that night as we waited for Ellen’s father to come home. After dinner I was sent to have a bath, but I could hear yelling and the sound of someone being smacked carrying through the thin walls of the bathroom.
We didn’t talk much at bedtime that night. Ellen said she was too tired.
‘Are you okay, Ellen?’ I asked cautiously.
She didn’t answer but I could hear her sniffling in the darkness. I climbed out of my bed and slid under the blankets with her. ‘I love you Ellen,’ I said, as I wrapped my arms around her warm body. We fell asleep that way.
Extract from Molly’s Dreams available at Amazon