Eighteen and eighty sat regarding each other across the Holland Park flat, calculation and world-weariness instinct in the eyes of the younger woman.
"I've been so looking forward to meeting you," said Kerry Probyn.
That Bettina did not doubt. Never had she seen a young eye more fixed on the main chance. She could be useful to the young Miss Probyn's burgeoning film career, and therefore she was valued. And as soon as the film was made, marketed, and shown she, Bettina, would prove to be one of the "base degrees" of the ladder by which she had ascended, and would accordingly be scorned.
"Let's begin," she began briskly. "I have a friend coming for tea at four. I hope the photographer will be prompt."
"Oh, he will," said Kerry, with a look that said they were both professional women. "You made it clear that he had to be."
Bettina smiled, knowingly, without replying.
"Well?" she said, when the silence had not been filled.
She looked at the girl across the table that was between them. She had distrusted Miss Probyn from the moment she had opened the door to her, perhaps from even before that. Miss Probyn had been brought to Britain by her parents when she was two. Her father was something high-up in the legal department of the Australian High Commission. She had been back to Australia for one year in her early teens, probably, Bettina suspected, to equip herself with an accent should any Australian parts come up. She had, Bettina had read, decided on a career in acting when she was eleven. She would have preferred a young actress with much better Australian credentials for the part of Liz in The Heart of the Land. She had sat her down on the other side of the occasional table and would resist the photographer's inevitable attempts to photograph them together in an intimate closeness. Enough was enough.
"I'm awfully interested in your growing up," said the young woman. "In an outback town in Australia, with farming parents, going to a small state school. Just like Liz in the book."
"Liz in the book lives in Armidale, which is not an outback town but a prosperous rural town on the Northern Tablelands." Since Kerry Probyn showed no signs of being abashed, Bettina asked nastily, "Haven't you spent some time in Australia?"
"Yes, I was born there. And I spent nearly a year in Sydney."
"Sydney is a wonderful town, but it's not Australia," said Bettina, who had not seen Sydney or even Australia for the last forty years. "There is all the difference in the world between a New England town like Armidale and a little, parched, remote town like Bundaroo, fifty miles from Walgett -- which back then meant fifty miles from nowhere. That's where I grew up. That's real outback."
"I didn't get out of Sydney all that much. There was so much to do there...But even if there are lots of differences, it's a book about a young girl, isn't it? There must be a lot of you in it, your reactions to things."
Bettina repressed a grimace at that last, slack phrase.
"I have been a young girl, and the book is about a young girl. That much is undeniable, but not very illuminating."
"The names Liz and Bettina are related, aren't they? They both come from Elizabeth."
Someone had been filling her silly head with the sort of nonsense academics used to spout. Bettina sighed audibly.
"Very sharp. Still, the fact that the two names have only one letter in common meant that I was entirely unaware of the relationship."
"And you got away from Australia, like Liz," said Kerry, her tone getting rather bellicose.
"I left Australia."
"And you never went back. I mean, that's got to be significant, hasn't it?"
Bettina's gaze was thundery.
"No. It might have been if what you say was true, but it's not. I have been back."
It seemed at last to get through to Kerry Probyn that the interview was not going well.
"Sorry. What I meant to say was that you never went back there to live."
"Oh no. I never went back there to live."
"Why was that?"
"I never intended to."
"You left, meaning to stay away for the rest of your life?"
Bettina intended that to be a full stop, the subject laid to rest. Kerry Probyn, characteristically, failed to see it.
"I'm just wondering why," she said. "I can see that writers in South Africa during that Apart-thing had to leave the country to write the truth about it. But no one was forced to leave Australia to write the truth."
"Oh, weren't they?" said Bettina. It was another full stop, and again it was ignored.
"Perhaps finally, now that you're writing your memoirs, you will be able to tell the truth," she said, with an attempt at brightness.
"I have always told the truth. And I am not writing my memoirs."
Bettina registered happily that the "little chat" proposed by Corydon Films was going from bad to worse.
"Let me tell you a few things about Armidale, and the countryside around it, so you don't make the mistake, should you go there, of calling it an outback town," she said, with a brightness that was intentionally false sounding.
The first paragraph of the memoirs that Bettina was not writing almost wrote itself. It had in fact been written almost word for word sixty-five years before.
By nine the sun is beginning its daily blaze over Bundaroo, and if there has been a sharp breeze overnight the dust from the tracks and homesteads on its borders is collected around the nest of buildings which is at its heart. The schoolchildren walk from the weatherboard homes in little knots of friends and allies on to the short bitumen strip, past the meager wrought-iron pillars and balconies of Grafton's Hotel, past the vegetable and grocery shop run by Won Chi, past the wooden veranda of Bob's Café, then into the dusty playground of the brick-and-board school building. Behind them is flat, brown landscape, eucalyptus trees, and the blue shapes of mountains in the distance. Ahead of them lies the same, on either side the same too. The children have entered the world of boundless hopes and limited prospects that their parents have inhabited for years, and that they will inhabit for the rest of their lives.
Whenever she read over this paragraph she remembered that in the last sentence she had originally written "open landscapes and closed minds." She had substituted "boundless hopes and limited prospects" because the words she had first written seemed too cruel. Perhaps she would use them later in the memoirs. Now the substitution seemed to symbolize why she had left Australia. Not because of the system of state censorship. But because one censored oneself.
Particularly if one was sixteen, and doing one's first piece of real writing.
The photographer, who had come promptly with a PR woman and looked, like her, rather nervous, did all the things that photographers do on what is basically a publicity job. He took a series of shots of Kerry Probyn gazing from the windows of the first-floor flat, over the beauties of Holland Park (in very soft focus), then a series of her gazing at Bettina's small Russell Drysdale, having first asked her which was the most valuable picture in the room. Then, more from tact than from any practical purpose, he took solo pictures of Bettina sitting in an armchair, hands in her lap, expression magisterial, looking every inch a great writer in the autumn of her days. Duty done, the photographer got down to the nitty-gritty.
"Now, if we could have some shots of you two together on the sofa," he said.
Bettina silently pointed Kerry Probyn to the sofa, she herself remaining aloof in her chair.
The photographer had failed to catch the clear messages of their body language.
"No, I meant both of you on the sofa, very much together, going over the book maybe. The book the film is being made from -- I'm sure you'll have a copy here."
"We only met an hour ago," said Bettina. "I have been talking to Miss Probyn about what it was like to live in Australia in the 1930s -- about weatherboard houses, dunnies in the backyard, and redback spiders. She thinks anything about the Australia outside Sydney will be useful for her performance in The Heart of the Land. I hope it will. That is all. Photography, like any other art, should aim at the truth. To set up some kind of love-in would be dishonest because it would have no basis in truth. Now, can we please go ahead with this business as we are now?"
The photographer was abashed, but nevertheless opened his mouth to continue his attempts at persuasion. An almost imperceptible nod from the PR woman -- but one perceived by Bettina -- persuaded him that this would be unwise. He photographed them talking across the table -- at first frostily, but as Bettina decided to make a concession, having got her way, with an attempt at warmth and friendliness. Well before four the session was over, and very glad Bettina felt that it was. She was also pleased that little Miss Probyn seemed to have had her dreadful teenage confidence dented by the encounter.
"Well, it's been wonderful meeting you," the fledgling actress said, as the photographer packed his heavier gear away. "Like a dream come true."
But a quaver in her voice belied her words, and when she made as if to embrace Bettina she changed her mind and actually shook her hand. As she turned to follow the other two, her body spoke of gratitude that the ordeal was over.
"Oh look! Aboriginal art!" she cried, as she caught sight of a bark painting by John Mawurndjurl by the door. Her gesture brought a quick flash from the cameraman. Then she shot a glance at Bettina's face, saw that it was grim, and scuttled out.
"Oh look! Aboriginal art!" Bettina said disgustedly to the friend she called Hughie as they sat half an hour later over tea, sandwiches, fruitcake, and gingerbread. "Such a false little thing! Still, I suppose it's a sort of advance that she didn't say 'Abo art.' We would have done back then."
"You wouldn't have called it art," Hughie pointed out. "The most you would have done was call them pictures."
"True," said Bettina, who often had to be reminded of attitudes all those years ago. "I wonder why I disliked her so instantly. Was it because she was convinced she'd be playing me? And though it's not true, there's a little bit of truth in it, and I don't want to be played by a forward little minx who's grown up in the Home Counties, who's spent a year in Sydney and thinks she knows all there is to know about Australia."
"Why was The Heart of the Land set in Armidale anyway?" asked Hughie. "It's not a town you knew well, is it?"
"Well enough. I had a holiday there with my Auntie Shirley when I was ten -- when Oliver was born. And then another when I was sixteen -- the one you know about. At the time it seemed the grandest place on earth. The shops! If you wanted anything you could choose which one to go to. I'd never realized there were places like that apart from Sydney or Melbourne. Of course I had no money to speak of, so it was more to look than to buy."
"When I first met you I wasn't much more sophisticated," said Hughie smiling reminiscently. "I had been to Newcastle once or twice, but mostly it was tiny little villages near the farm, places with one shop apiece, and never more than a penny to spend."
Hughie did not need to tell Bettina that he was talking about the Newcastle in Britain, not the one in New South Wales. They had known each other so long, since Bundaroo in fact, that Bettina often felt they didn't need to talk -- they could just sit and think together.
"The film will bring in a lot of money," Hughie said, biting into a slice of shiny gingerbread. Bettina had known he was going to say that. She shrugged.
"If it's a success. Clare's got a wonderful contract, so the money isn't coming in one big bung. She's an agent in a thousand. Still, I don't think it will be a success."
"How on earth can you say that?" Hughie seemed genuinely concerned. "Oh, I know: it was the girl."
"Not at all. The girl will do well enough. She'll have a Sydney accent which will be all wrong, and she won't look drab enough -- but who cares about the accent, and who wants young girls to look drab? No, what I'm afraid of is that the whole thing will be wrong. That they'll be thinking of the international market and dress it and set it accordingly. If that's the case there'll be no chance of its being authentic. I'd be willing to bet that Corydon films it in the wrong area, gets the wrong sort of town, in the wrong sort of landscape, with all the people looking wrong."
"But that's the story of every film of a good book that Hollywood has ever made," said Hughie. "The Australian film industry is a mini-Hollywood these days. And only you will know."
"Well yes," admitted Bettina. "I suppose what I'm thinking is that it won't be an artistic success. But why should I care about that? The film will have a premiere, get some kind of distribution, probably come out on video, and that will be the end of it. The book will always be around."
"True. And you've done very nicely by the books...very nicely indeed. But films are another thing -- speaking financially. And one success could spark other successes. Merchant Ivory could take your books up..." Bettina knew what was coming. "You have so many grasping people around you, my dear."
"They seem to grasp only in your imagination, Hughie."
"Clare, for example. She is obsessed with money."
"That's her business as my agent. She does quite nicely out of me as it is."
"Mark -- even his father, your brother Oliver. I remember him as a delightful, solemn little boy, but who knows what he is like now? They all want their cut, you mark my words. Then there's Peter Seddon -- you never really finished with him as you should have done. Not to mention -- "
"Then don't mention them! I know perfectly well who my friends and associates are. I am not about to discuss my will with anyone. I have now more, much more money for myself than I need. I can leave something to everyone or nothing to anyone. You really mustn't bore me by going on about this every time you come 'round, Hughie."
Hughie looked abashed. She made him sound such a drag.
"I realize I go on, Betty, but you know I have your interests at heart. You ought to get yourself a literary executor, a sort of custodian of your writings -- "
"Well -- "
"You for example."
"I would be -- "
"Hughie, I am not so pessimistic about my chances of living a few more years that I would appoint as my biographer and executor someone who is exactly the same age as myself."
"But -- "
"Especially in view of the superior life expectancy of women compared to men. Let's say no more about this. How is Marie?"
"Well, quite well...Bettina, you know there's no personal motive in what I've said, no designs on you."
"Of course there's not, Hughie. You're perfectly well provided for, you and Marie. I do hope you're right about other films. I'd like some of the later books to be done, the ones set here. It would be so much easier for all concerned than traipsing off to the outback. And they're just as good, and often very funny."
Hughie had no doubt noticed the swerve to another subject, but decided to go along with it.
"I don't think you'll find London in the fifties and sixties can compete with Australia in the thirties for audience appeal."
"I don't see why not," said Bettina, who held her opinions obstinately. "They're very entertaining, and there are lots of sketches in them of real people -- actors, writers, and suchlike -- and they are people readers always recognize."
"And most of them are dead, which is an advantage," agreed Hughie.
"Still, Australia is remote. It isn't just the popularity of the early-evening soaps -- interest in it goes a lot further back than that. And the outback is remote and strange even for a Sydney or a Melbourne audience."
"True. No one in Sydney thought to take little Miss Probyn inland to show her what it's like."
"I suppose," said Hughie, after a moment for thought and remembrance, "that a lot of its appeal lies in the fact that on the one hand it's strange, like nothing that people in cities know, and on the other it's manageable and graspable."
Bettina thought about that.
"I don't quite see what you mean," she said.
"An outback town -- what is it? One short street, a few shops, a café maybe, and a hotel which is mainly a watering hole. A few small properties immediately around it, and larger ones further away. Two hundred, three hundred people in all -- people with their noses to the daily grindstone, people with incredibly limited horizons and no idea what is happening in the wider world of Australia, let alone the wider world of everything outside it. It's easily knowable, like an English village a hundred years ago."
Oh no, it's not, thought Bettina. You were an outsider, and you were treated as an outsider. You were there for six months at most, then you left. You thought you knew Bundaroo, but you hardly even scratched the surface.
Bundaroo made damned sure it kept its secrets from the likes of you.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Barnard
A Novel of Suspense
A Cry from the Dark
A Novel of Suspense
Bettina Whitelaw has come a long way from her childhood in the little outback town of Bundaroo, Australia. Many years have passed, a lifetime really, but she's never forgotten what happened there on the evening that changed her life forever.
How could she forget the school dance, her taunting classmates, dancing with the strange but brilliant English boy, Hughie Naismyth? How could she forget what happened next, when, overheated and exhilarated by the music and the moment, she wandered off alone into a secluded, wooded area?
Now a renowned, elderly author living in London's elegant Holland Park, Bettina faces a flood of memories as she works on her memoirs, even though her focus is more on the frightening things that are happening today. Someone has recently entered her home and gone through her desk. The intruder is clearly not an ordinary burglar. It must be someone she knows. She's been a little lax in handing out keys, so the suspects are many -- her nephew, Mark; her agent, Clare; her friends, Peter or Katie. Or it could be someone else.
What does Bettina possess that this person would want to steal? A puzzle that at first seems mildly disturbing soon turns deadly serious. Someone is willing to kill -- but why? Does the answer rest in Bundaroo or nearer to home?
A Cry from the Dark shows us vintage Robert Barnard as he slyly lays the clues that lead to his trademark surprise -- and poignant -- ending.
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