She was surprised to see his hand, usually so steady, shaking as he pulled on the hand brake outside Number thirty-eight.
‘What’s the matter?’
Hovee looked down at his hand, then followed it as she lifted, then pressed it to her face to kiss his palm. He drew a deep breath and opened the door. ‘I’ll be all right, let’s go in.’
They came together again on the tiled pathway to his father’s Federation cottage. He would usually go up the side driveway past the arum lilies and the gas meter, to the back door, but the front door seemed appropriate on this occasion.
She giggled, squeezing his hand. ‘Hovee Ray! I do believe you are frightened to tell them.’
‘Call me Bill in the house. They all call me Bill.’
‘I know, but I like your name.’ She said it slowly, her voice quavering with laughter: ‘Hoveeeee.’
As they approached the heavy cedar door, its upper half inlaid with lead-light parrots and green eucalyptus leaves, it was opened by eight-year old Mary, her older sister Clarissa close behind. Mary turned back and called into the dark house. “Mum, it’s Bill and he’s with a lady!’
Clarissa nodded to Violet and held the door wider for her to enter. ‘Is this your ladyfriend, Bill? Won’t you introduce us?’
Hovee was flustered. ‘Um, sorry. Clissy, this is my um… this is Violet Dupond.’
Clarissa held out her hand to be shaken, but Violet moved in and hugged her. ‘Bill has told me so much about you.’ Clarissa was released from Violet’s embraces as her mother Mary approached, drying her hands on a kitchen apron. She hugged Hovee, stood back to look at Violet then turned back to Hovee. ‘She’s lovely Bill, can we keep her?’ She laughed then took Violet’s hand. I heard Bill tell Clissy your name’s Violet. Can I call you Vi?’
Violet was dragged through a lounge room of dark cedar furniture and drawn Venetian blinds by this short jolly woman whose brown skin and huge dark eyes hinted at ancestry that was most likely Aboriginal. She looked hard at Hovee, seeking any racial hint but there was no sign to confirm her suspicion. She had little time to wonder, as she was hustled down a dark hallway, past several closed doors she guessed to be bedrooms, past a kitchen on her right and out into an airy space, long and narrow, one side whitewashed and the other lit by clear glass louvered windows that had once been a verandah. Slanting July sun warmed the white wall and reflected its cheeriness.
Sitting in a heavy leather chair, was a bald man who did not stand, but smiled nevertheless when introduced. He paused a moment to assess her as she continued to smile for him, then waved Hovee and Violet to a two-seater opposite. ‘I’m the father of this rascal, so you can tell me what trouble he had gotten you into.’ He laughed then and held up his hand to forestall a reply. ‘Don’t worry, I brought up my boys to be gentlemen and my girls to be ladies. I am sure he has done nothing untoward.’ He raised one eyebrow in question, but did not wait for an answer before addressing Hovee as if they had already been talking about his engagement. ‘Where did you find this delightful creature?’
‘Um… we met on a building site… she was driving a truck for her father and um…’
The old man laughed, cutting him off, then looked up at Mary in time to catch her puzzled frown. Truck driving was not an occupation that would be considered suitable for a Brethren woman, but his continued direct gaze indicated that he was interested more than he was judgemental.
‘And is that what you do for a job?’
She laughed. ‘Oh no, I was helping Dad on a day off. I’m a nurse’s aide at Fairfield Hospital.’
‘And what does your father do, Violet?’
She cast a glance at Hovee and back to the old man. ‘He is a carrier mainly, but there’s not much work to be had, so he does odd jobs.’
She had told Hovee that her father had been too hung-over to drive the truck that day, but she was not about to tell the old man. She took Hovee’s hand in warning that her revelation to him was privileged information.
Her movement was noted by the old man but he chose to ignore it.
Mary senior reappeared beside her. ‘Will you take tea, my dear?’
Violet nodded, relieved. ‘Yes please, tea would be nice.’
Escorted by daughters Clarissa and Mary, she left the room. They could be heard whispering as they crowded into the kitchen. Hovee Senior glanced their way then reached for an enamelled tin box and opened it to offer Violet its contents. ‘I hope you like caramel.’ She took one but kept it in her hand. He noticed, nodding. ‘It’s nice. Stafford gets them at Rawleigh’s.’
‘Thank you,’ she smiled gently, ‘I’ll have it in a minute.’
She noted his continued attention on the hand holding onto Hovee and decided she should make the announcement that was the purpose of their visit. ‘As you might have guessed, Bill and I are engaged to be married.’
He snapped the Rawleigh’s sweets lid closed. ‘But you’re not in the Meeting, are you?’
Violet’s questioning eyes sought Hovee’s as he squirmed in his seat as the old man turned to him. ‘You can’t marry her unless she’s in the Meeting.’
‘She’ll join the meeting, Dad.’
His father turned back to Violet. ‘I take it your family is not in the Meeting?’
Hovee’s face registered such desolation that she needed to take charge. ‘No, none of my family is in the Meeting,’ “whatever that is,” she thought to herself. ‘But I’ll join, if that’s what I must do before we are married. What do I need to do?’
‘It’s not quite that simple,’ the old man replied. ‘You need to accept the teachings of our church as the only way to the One True God.’ He observed her confusion, looked to Hovee and barked. ‘She’s not a Catholic, is she?’
Hovee opened his mouth to speak but Violet was quicker. ‘My mother was Irish Catholic, my father is a heathen, but I am my own person and I can be whatever I want to be.’ She popped the sweet into her mouth. ‘Delicious!’ she exclaimed, then continued. ‘And I want to marry your son and join the Brethren.’
Hovee watched with amazement. No woman had ever talked to his father like that. He expected a blaze of wrath but instead, the old man laughed, shaking his head, also in amazement.
Just then, Clarissa entered with a tray of tea, milk and sugar with his wife Mary right behind carrying scones, jam and cream. Clarissa slid the Rawleigh’s tin aside and placed the tray in front of her father as Violet leant against Hovee and patted his hand.
The old man was watching, so she smiled. ‘Can I pour your tea, Mr Ray?’
She took the tea pot and held it over his cup. ‘How do you like it?’
‘White and strong.’ He poured milk into his cup then glanced up at his wife’s concerned face, smiling at what seemed a private joke, but she was not interested in responding to his standing joke about her skin colour and continued to look worried. He turned back to Violet. ‘Yes. White and strong. Come to the Meeting at Ashfield tomorrow night and hear my sermon.’
Her eyes were on his face, inviting him to continue. ‘It’s about Jezebel, a woman who led her husband away from God to worship false gods.’ He sat back and folded his hands over his generous abdomen. ‘She came to a sticky end. Her own servants threw her out of a high window and her corpse was left in the street to be eaten by dogs.’
Violet looked at him steadily, amusement curling her lips as she paused to pour his tea. ‘I’m sure she deserved everything that came her way.’ Hovee shook his head in wonder at how this young woman, who had claimed his heart and body, had so effortlessly tamed his formidable father. He also knew the old man was an intelligent judge of people and if she stepped over a line that seemed to have been moved just for her, his anger would be all the greater for a perceived deception.