- Published: 17 October 2023
- ISBN: 9781761047015
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $37.00
The Sugar Palace
'Where've you been?' Mary Fairweather asked her daughter, Grace, lips stretching themselves into a line of dismay.
Grace busied herself with retying her apron, catching her breath. ‘I’ve just had to work my way around another riot in the Domain. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of people there.’
Her father, Hugh, handed out change and thanked a customer before strolling up. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Grace is saying there’s more of that socialist rioting going on in the city.’
‘They were burning a red flag when I was passing,’ she added.
‘Well, Grace, you’re safe, that’s what matters,’ he replied, straightening his own apron. ‘And you’ve always got Norm to protect you.’ The bell over the door tinkled twice in rapid succession as new customers walked in. ‘It’s like Clapham Junction in here,’ he admitted.
Grace didn’t know where Clapham Junction was, but it sounded busy. Probably a place in the old country, which her father and his own often became nostalgic about. ‘I imagine Norm’s in the thick of it,’ she remarked to her mother, who predictably gave an indulgent smile. Grace knew how much her mother approved of Norman Jenkins, who’d risen from the ranks of the Ragged School at The Rocks to make something of himself. He was now a senior sergeant in the local police, working around Circular Quay.
‘I thought I’d make some toffee apples.’ She looked between her parents as her mother drifted off to serve the customers. ‘We could sell them for a penny each as the weather is cooling. Also, Dad,’ she said, before realising her father was busy sorting tins on shelves, engrossed in his task. ‘Dad, listen to me,’ she pleaded softly.
He turned, unable to hide the pride in his voice despite his words. ‘So my slip of a daughter is now going to tell me something about the grocery business, is she?’
Grace smiled; her father’s tongue was never truly sharp. He found a way to communicate everything from vexation to fury in the most accommodating manner. ‘I’ve been thinking about the boxes of chocolate we have on sale.’
‘Have you now,’ he remarked absently.
‘Dad, please,’ she said, a hint of frustration in her tone. She looked at her mother, who was fully engaged with a customer.
Hugh Fairweather sighed and turned to face Grace so she might continue.
‘I pay close attention to what our customers say, and I’ve noticed that the most popular choice in the box of Hoadley’s Violet Milk selection is the little chunk of honeycomb. Can you believe that?’
‘I see. Should I be impressed with this observation?’
Grace sighed audibly to show him his lack of interest was frustrating.
He shrugged. ‘And?’
‘Let me make some honeycomb that we can sell as our own product in separate blocks. If it’s that popular, we can take advantage of the preference and give our customers what they want.’
Her mother returned to the conversation. It seemed to Grace that even out of earshot she somehow was able to eavesdrop. ‘Now, how would you offer them, Grace? Honeycomb is notoriously sticky and then it liquefies and oozes.’
‘Well, that’s just it – I’ve solved the problem or I wouldn’t be suggesting it.’ She tried to keep impertinence from her tone.
‘Oh, go on with you,’ her mother said. ‘Your head is full of lollies and chocolates when it should be full of lace and wedding bells.’
Grace sighed loudly. ‘I’m in no hurry for that.’
‘Well, you should be,’ her mother admonished. ‘A lovely man like Norm. They don’t come along that often, my girl. He’ll do you proud.’
‘I’d like to think you’ll both be proud of me one day for more than who I marry – when I have my own confectionery store. I’ll remind you of this day when Hoadley’s catches on and starts producing blocks of chocolate-covered honeycomb that it sells separately for a huge profit. Time is of the essence, don’t you see?’
‘I’m sure we will, my love, but right now, I want you to stack the new delivery of eggs. The fellow is unloading them now. Hurry along.’
Grace sighed. ‘I’ll be out the back, then,’ she said, scowling at the sound of hammering on metal, a regular part of their life now that the famed Sydney Harbour Bridge was under construction. It had been noisy enough when the building works began on the two approaches that would allow a bridge to span the harbour, but now it felt overwhelming – like a loud concert that relentlessly accompanied their lives. The wireless and the newspaper reports were full of its excitement daily, but for those who lived nearby or beneath it, the new bridge was a cacophony.
Moving away from the counter, Grace went through a small doorway to the storeroom and then to the back door that led out into a tiny alley. There she noted a man, not too far off her own age of twenty-six, she guessed; he was carrying trays of eggs with great care, whistling as he walked.
‘Hello, gorgeous,’ he said in something that wasn’t an Australian accent.
She gusted a laugh at his forwardness. ‘You’re new. Where’s old Bert?’
‘Oh, he had a fall. I’ll be doing the deliveries for a while.’ He grinned. ‘Now, I think I’ll look forward to them.’ He gave a cheeky wink, his face settling into an expression that spoke of endless mischief.
‘I see. So what’s your name?’
‘I’m Alfie,’ he said.
‘And you work here, do you? Amongst all this terrible noise?’ he asked.
‘Oh, you get used to it.’ She sighed. ‘We try not to complain about the bridge. It will change Sydney forever.’
He grinned. ‘You know it’s an English firm that won the international competition to design it, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I do,’ she said. So he was English then, that made sense. She was highly aware of the difference in their accents now she’d heard more than his hello. She hadn’t thought of herself as having one before, but he certainly did – there was no doubting the cockney in him. What did she sound like to him?
He didn’t seem in a hurry to leave. ‘Do you live around here, then?’
She pointed up. ‘Above the store. Er, my parents own this grocery.’
‘Oh? You’re a shopkeeper, eh?’ His voice took on a lofty tone.
‘Not exactly.’ Secretly, that was precisely what she planned to be. ‘It’s Dad’s place. I’ve worked here since I was in school.’
‘You going to inherit it, then?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t really want to think of that time.’
‘I don’t have anyone, so I can think like that.’
‘You know . . . a bit selfish,’ he said, shrugging.
‘I don’t know what that means. You must have stayed at school with your clever language.’
Grace nodded. ‘You didn’t?’
‘No. Not where I was brought up.’
She couldn’t help enjoying his London lilt. ‘How long have you been in Australia?’
‘Ooh, probably a couple of years now. I have to be honest, Gracie, I didn’t expect to survive the war in Europe. But when I got back from the Front I couldn’t settle. So I took myself off on a ship to the other side of the world, like a grand explorer.’
Gracie. A nickname already? ‘Gosh, how adventurous,’ she said, impressed, wishing she could do something as exciting as that. ‘So, are you enjoying Sydney?’
‘Course! Who wouldn’t love this place and its sun and warmth? I’ve been doing all sorts of odd jobs, but I’ve got plans.’
‘What sort of plans?’
He tapped his nose to say they were plans for only him to know. ‘I’ll tell you when they’re feeling ripe.’
She laughed. ‘I’ll look forward to it. So the boy who didn’t finish school is ambitious?’
‘Aren’t you? Or are you one of those with your head full of marriage and tin lids?’
‘Kids . . . babies.’
She found she was helplessly drawn to the way he spoke, with his dropped consonants and his cocky manner, but she bristled at the presumption. ‘Oh, I have plans too.’
‘Good. Be a waste to marry the wrong fellow,’ he said, casting her a dimpled grin. ‘Leave these here, shall I?’ He pointed to a counter just in the doorway. It came out as ‘ear’, and she wanted to keep listening to him forever.
‘Yes, that’s fine. And how would you know who is right or not right for me?’
‘I dunno, I must have the gypsy in me and can foresee these things.’ He winked.
She grinned at this assuredness. ‘Wouldn’t school have made it easier for your plans?’ she asked, leaning on the final word.
‘Nah, I left school as soon as I could. I was rubbish at everything, except adding and taking away, multiplying. You know, numbers.’
‘Arithmetic,’ she said.
‘That’s what they called it, yes. I used to annoy the teachers because I knew the answers before they’d hardly set the question.’
‘You’re a fibber, Alfie.’
He looked wounded, and touched his heart. ‘Would I lie to a beautiful girl like you? No, sir. Go on, test me.’
She laughed. ‘Pardon?’
‘Test me. Throw some numbers at me.’
Grace leaned her head to one side, considering. ‘All right.’ She reeled off the first numbers that came into mind. ‘Nine plus four, minus six, add three, and times it by five.’
‘That would be a nice round fifty.’ The answer was a second short of instant.
‘Wait, what?’ She couldn’t help sounding shocked. ‘I haven’t worked it out for myself yet. Hang on.’
‘You don’t have to, Gracie, darlin’. I’m right.’
He was. She gave him a slit-eyed look of disbelief.
‘I’ll do it again if you don’t trust me.’
‘Right, well, this time I’m going to know the answer first.’
She removed a tiny stub of pencil from behind her ear – just as her dad had worn his for as long as she could recall – and pulled some paper from her apron pocket. She took a couple of moments to calculate. Distantly her mother’s voice sounded. ‘Coming!’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Yep, but this time it will cost you a kiss.’
‘Pardon?’ She looked astonished.
‘Just on the cheek. Don’t be naughty now and suggest anything more.’
She found him helplessly amusing; his turn of phrase was addictive and his eyes were like polished glass buttons of grey that won their shine from the endless humour in them. Grace couldn’t deny he had a lovely open face, full of amusement and daring. His features were a bit ragged, like his clothes, and he had an unshaven chin, unkempt eyebrows and the hint of a wispy moustache. His hair was untidy, its unruly edge like an untrimmed hedge, falling haphazardly over a grimy collar. There were smudges on his skin and his fingernails were grubby too but despite it all, there was something powerfully attractive about him and his lean, long-legged presence. She felt drawn like a child to a proffered sweetie. And he was fun. Given the understandable gloom of so many of the men who had returned from the war, it was like a gift to have a man with a sense of joy in her midst.
‘Fine,’ she agreed, trying not to think of Norman as Alfie grinned at her, putting a hand behind his ear to add drama to the moment as he feigned listening with extra care. ‘Ready?’
‘Whenever you are, darlin’.’
‘Twenty-seven divided by nine, times eleven, minus fourteen.’
‘Nineteen,’ he said within two beats of her heart.
She opened her mouth in part awe, part vexation that he’d solved it so fast, and watched him tap his cheek with a finger. ‘Oooh,’ she grumbled. ‘Are you cheating somehow?’
‘No. I told you. Just good at numbers,’ he repeated, tapping his cheek again. ‘You’d better hurry, that lady’s calling again.’
She nodded. ‘That lady is my mother.’ She stepped into the alley to pay her dues and as she leaned to kiss his cheek, he whipped his head around and instead kissed her on the lips.
Grace gaped at him, as Alfie exploded into delighted laughter. ‘You walked right into that,’ he explained.
‘How wicked of you! I’ll have you know I’m engaged.’
That didn’t seem to give him pause. ‘I see no ring. Hope he’s not a tightarse as well?’
‘As well as what?’
‘Boring,’ he said.
‘Bor . . . You know nothing about him!’
‘I know he’s got good taste but that’s about all. What’s his name?’
‘Norman Jenkins, Norm, if you must know.’
‘Well, that’s a dull enough name, darlin’. What’s he keeping you waiting for? Doesn’t he know someone will snap you up?’
She looked back at him, her mouth gaping at his mockery. ‘Well, it’s not official yet,’ was all she could manage to mumble.
He shrugged. ‘Actually, don’t be hasty, Gracie.’ He winked. ‘I told you, I’ve got the sight in me and the right bloke hasn’t asked you yet.’
‘And he is not boring.’
‘Isn’t he? See you, beautiful Grace,’ and as he gave a little bow, his hand at his waist as he bent, she saw he had only four whole fingers. The little finger was a stump. He must have lost it during the war, she thought sadly.
Grace watched as Alfie strode away, his gait cocky, his whistle jolly. He seemed to know she was watching him and turned back to blow her a kiss. He hadn’t needed to. The touch of his lips on hers was still strong in her memory, and despite him being rough around the edges, he tasted of peppermint, while Norm tasted of tobacco.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
York – 1915 The argument had been tame, polite even, but there was no doubt in her mind that if she didn’t make a decision, it would be made for her.
Henry Appleby shook his head and flapped the page with disgust, reaching for his glass of ale nearby.
When would it stop? They’d said nothing about lingering pain, but these cramps forced her to hold her breath and count through them when they came; they were like something too big trying to squeeze through a small hole.
Jean Farmer took the call, and regretted instantly that she’d been the one to pick up the phone.
I didn’t dare look at the palm of my hand for fear of seeing the bruising arc pattern of fingernails from the clenching of my fist moments earlier.
Yia-Yia knew many stories of gods and heroes, giants and nymphs, and the Three Fates who spun and measured and cut the thread of life.
In that crowded city, she had worked for a haberdasher and presided over the slow death of her mother, after which she’d discovered in herself an unexpected yearning to leave Ireland and see the world.