In the self-indulgent world of Sydney 1984, Cully is swept up in her advertising career and the arms of an appropriately exciting man. But when she loses everything, she finds herself accepting a surprise bequest, despite the strings attached. She must move to the bush and research her family history. And she has just one year to write it up in a book.
Cully decides to uncover the truth about the death of her grandmother Thelma. Will her book destroy the family, and her chances of finding love? Cully may have inherited Thelma’s gift of second sight, but will it be enough to save her from repeating her mistakes?
* This piece was originally published as A Travelling Eye.
From Chapter One
Thursday 1 November 1984, Central Coast of NSW
A rapping noise at the car window woke me out of my reverie. My mother was motioning to me to wind down the window. I did so like an automaton, bracing myself for a complaint about my behaviour.
But when she spoke, Mum’s tone was unexpectedly gentle.
‘Did the Ole Boy upset you again, pet?’ she asked.
I nodded. Trust my mother to state the obvious.
‘He was going on and on again about how working in the advertising industry was destroying me. He says it’s all false and that it’ll kill me. He was being over-dramatic as usual.’
Mum sighed. She had always hated family ‘get-togethers’. I suspected she had relished the chance to escape herself.
‘Yes, but you won’t change him now, Cully. Your grandfather has had a hard life, you know, and so did Doris, though it was a blessed release . . .’
She was bending over awkwardly to speak to me through the car window, but I resisted the urge to invite her into my sanctuary.
‘Don’t let him get to you, pet,’ she said, in the tone of resignation that always entered her voice when she spoke of the Ole Boy.
‘I know, Mum, I won’t. But I think it is best that I head off now for Sydney.’
I tried to sound buoyant, happy in a sad sort of way suitable for the aftermath of a funeral. I doubt I fooled my mother.
‘I am going back into the party, Cully, if you can call it that, to try to talk to Aunty Vee. She is the only one of the family I really like, you know, pet. Besides your father, of course. I can talk to Aunty Vee.’
I knew I was expected to sigh in sympathy, so I did. Mum had never got on with Doris. She enjoyed complaining about the power the grandparents exerted over everyone in the family, especially her husband. I was not in the mood to hear her rehearse her woes so I started the car engine, a hint that it was time for me to hit the road.
‘I need to go, Mum. I have an important day at work tomorrow and while I know the family doesn’t approve of it, my advertising career is very important to me. I love working at Morton, Hardy & Browne I won’t let the ‘bloody’ Ole Boy control me like he does Dad!’
‘Don’t swear, Cully,’ said Mum automatically, but I knew she was pleased to hear my defiant words. She straightened up, ready to walk back to that morbid gathering of family members and ancient friends.
‘If it really does make you happy, pet, then I am happy for you.’
‘MH&B has just won a whole lot of awards, Mum. We have been called the best advertising agency in the whole damn world.’
‘As long as it makes you happy, pet,’ she repeated.
Raindrops were starting to spit against the car windscreen so I turned the wipers on, wishing they could also clear the blur in my mind. As they screeched across the glass, an image of a young women emerged. She looked familiar but she had a peculiar hairstyle. Brownish curls were sitting over her forehead like a headband. Her eyes were wide set apart and her smile tremulous, as she looked out at me from the confines of her picture frame. She had such a kind face, so familiar. Suddenly I knew who she was. I smiled back at her.
‘Mum, do you still have that portrait of Thelma?’ I asked.
‘You know, the one taken during the War, a few years before she died?’
‘Thelma, Dad’s real mother? Why on earth are you thinking about her on today of all days?’
‘Yes, Thelma, the grandmother who must never be spoken about. The Ole Boy was going on about her, about me being too much like her and doomed to meet a terrible fate like she did.’
I knew I was exaggerating but I wanted to have Mum on my side.
‘Pity he didn’t care more about Thelma when she was alive. But yes, I do have that photo somewhere—if it survived our move to the Central Coast. You can see it next time you visit—when you can take some time out of your important job in the city to see your family.’
I revved the motor. I noticed the rain had already flattened the wave of my mother’s greying blonde hair and she was shivering with cold.
‘I best get out of this rain before I get wet,’ she said. ‘Don’t listen to the Ole Boy, Cully. He was the one responsible for Thelma’s death. Your Dad told me that a long time ago. He swore me to secrecy. But I won’t have the Ole Boy upsetting you like this.’
‘Did he murder her?’ I blurted out. ‘I bet that bloody ole bastard was responsible, she was too young to die.’
‘Don’t swear, Cully, you never did before you started in that wretched advertising agency, MB and ‘Whoose-whats’, or whatever you like to call it.’
I flinched at the careless tone with which she dismissed my agency and my dream job. At least Thelma was still smiling at me, being encouraging. I felt a surge of anger against the Ole Boy.
‘I bet Thelma stood up to him, maybe threatened to shoot him again, and he couldn’t have that!’
‘Why do you always have to be so dramatic, Cully?’ She sighed again, more loudly this time, as if in mock despair.
‘All I am saying, Cully, is that there are many ways to kill a person and your father has never recovered from losing his mother when he was so young.’
‘Do you think Dad might finally talk to me about Thelma, now that Doris is gone?’
Mum didn’t answer. She stood upright then started running through the rain back to the doorway of the funeral parlour, where I could see my father standing, watching us. I knew he would be worried about me catching a chill. The family was prone to it, he often remarked. Hadn’t I almost died from pneumonia when I was five?
How hard it was to escape from family expectations, I thought, as I drove through curtains of rain. Now I couldn’t even escape from the long-dead Thelma, captured in sepia so many years ago. Her framed studio photograph had lain buried beneath the towels in the linen cupboard of my childhood home. I would sneak it out when Mum was preoccupied and pore over that face, looking for traces of my own.
Thelma’s right eye turned down slightly, as she stared out at the world. It gave the impression she was seeing something beyond her immediate surroundings.
I had asked Doris once about that strange eye. Doris said it was called a ‘lazy eye or a travelling eye’ and told me that I had one too—only not as bad. It ran in Thelma’s side of the family. Then we had baked a chocolate cake.
When I asked Mum about my own eye she had become angry. I wasn’t to believe everything Doris said and thank goodness my father was still out working because I must never mention Thelma’s name to him. It would make him cry.
I steered down the highway as the wind shook the gumtrees in the adjoining bushland and lightning jolted through blackened skies. Only the old-fashioned stolidity of my car kept us crawling along the road, defying the elements. The Ole Boy had given me the Volvo as a gift for my eighteenth birthday, pontificating about young women drivers needing all the help they could get. I had been embarrassed by his largesse—and its mawkish colour.
And here that car was, proving him right yet again! It really was time that somebody proved him wrong.
The image of Thelma’s face swam through the rain and back into my head. I swear she gave me a conspiratorial wink with her travelling eye.
That is when I knew that it was time to find out more about her, what she had been like and why she had died in 1943. I would reveal the Ole Boy for the control freak he was. I would uncover the truth about his responsibility for her death.
Then the whole family would understand, at last, that I was truly independent.
After flirting with a career in advertising, C.D. surprised everyone including herself, by becoming a diplomat. She retired from international relations to establish a boutique thoroughbred farm and pursue her original love of writing. Hurry Back Thelma is based on the true story of her grandmother Thelma.
To contact the author email: email@example.com or phone +61 (0)400 642 782.