Book extract

Streets on a Map

Dale Harcombe



Winter-gaunt elms clawed at the air like they wanted to escape. Abby knew the feeling. Eight weeks!  Could it be only eight weeks ago, she had come to Astley? Already it seemed a lifetime.

            The bustle of the city which had enfolded her in afternoons filled with rehearsals and evenings interacting with the audience had gone. All that remained was a hard knot of regret and a procession of lonely days.  Well, no more! Today she would do something to change it, she thought, as she dropped the two pieces of music into her shoulder bag, and locked the door, ignoring Joel’s admonitions that no-one ever locked doors in Astley.

            Curled in the hollow between hills, the town had a staidness which depressed her. Smoke from wood fires billowed in a veil over houses of natural brick trimmed with heritage colours. Unlike the tarted up apricot and pink terraces of Paddington and Balmain, these houses carried their years gracefully. She steeled herself for the meeting ahead, aware that more than one set of lace curtains twitched as she passed.

            With a wry smile she hurried past the bluestone post office, the bakery and old Harry’s corner shop, inscribed over the doorway with 1879. At the door of the hotel Abby stopped.

            For a moment she hesitated. Then squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath, she pushed the door and walked in. To her right two men huddled over a chess board. Four others sprawled on stools at the bar. As one they turned to stare at her.

            Abby lifted her chin higher, smoothed the arcs of dark hair that curved around her face and approached the bar.

            A woman, round and squat as a beer barrel, bustled up. ‘Hello luv, what can I get ya?’

            ‘I’d like to see the owner, please.’

            ‘That’d be Frank. Frank!’ the woman, bellowed. ‘Someone to see you.’ From brown eyes under brown hair like a ragged hedge, the woman eyed her speculatively. ‘Frank won’t be long. Can I get you anything, luv?’

            ‘No... thanks. Not right at the moment.’

            ‘Hey Jean! Another round up here,’ one of the men at the other end of the bar called.

            ‘Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on, George. You won’t die of thirst in the next minute.’

            ‘You never know.’ His mates laughed.

            Jean continued wiping the glass in her hand.

            ‘Come on woman, get your butt into gear,’ the man said.

            ‘My butt is none of your concern. So, just mind your mouth, George Loney. Or you might just find yourself wearing the next beer.’ She ambled towards them.

            Perched on the stool, Abby felt exposed as a wooden duck in a shooting gallery.

            ‘Jean said you wanted to see me. What can I do you for?’

            Abby jumped. For a big man he walked softly.

            ‘You’re the owner?’

            He looked around. ‘Can’t see no-one else.’

            ‘I’ve come about a job. I...’

            ‘Sorry, I’ve got all the help I need.’ He indicated to the woman at the other end of the bar. ‘More’n enough sometimes.’

            ‘I heard that Frank Naughton. You watch your mouth.’

            ‘The trouble and strife.’

            ‘Sorry?’ Abby said, aware of the attention of the men in the hotel focused on her.

            ‘The wife,’ Frank explained. ‘So you see I’m not in the market for another barmaid.’

            ‘Good, because I’m not applying to be one. I thought if you had a floor show,’ Abby hurried on. ‘Someone singing, would bring in customers and -’       

            ‘Hang on, just what is it you’re proposing here, girlie?’

            ‘I’m a singer. That’s what I used to do in Sydney.’

            ‘So I heard.’

            ‘I could bring in extra business to your hotel.’ And maybe improve the tone of it a little, she thought, but didn’t say it. ‘I’m suggesting a couple of nights a week. You know, give the men somewhere they could bring their wives and-’

            ‘You’re joking! Most men come here to get away from their wives. Half their luck,’ he muttered, with a glance in Jean’s direction.  ‘Forget it! The blokes here don’t want a bloomin’ song and dance show.’       

            Abby eyed off the old piano in the corner. ‘But I could...’  

            ‘Listen girlie, this is not one of your poncy city pubs or wine bars.  This is a place where a man comes for a quiet beer or three. Blimey!’ he said, shaking his head and walking away. ‘What next! Wasting a man’s time with fool ideas.’

            ‘Next thing you know, Frank, she’ll want to bring in dancing girls.’ The men at the bar laughed.

            ‘Now mightn’t be a half bad idea,’ the man, Abby assumed was George, said.

            The men laughed again.

            Abby slipped down from the stool. ‘If you’re not interested Mr Naughton, I’m sure others will be.’         

            ‘I wouldn’t count on it, girlie, not around here.’

            Jean flashed a sympathetic glance.

            ‘We’ll just see about that.’ Face aflame, Abby picked up her bag and walked out.

            Behind her laughter erupted.


The chill wind locals called a ‘lazy wind,’ whipped at her hair. Abby raked it back with her fingers. ‘Your loss,’ she muttered, bracing herself against the wind.

            She struggled down the street, past the nursery and the doctor’s surgery that operated two afternoons a week. She wondered what happened if people took sick on other days and hoped she’d never have to find out.

            Feeling conspicuous, Abby walked past the sandstone church converted to a craft shop, past the newly opened home decorating shop, past the combined antique shop and service station, which struck her as an odd combination of businesses, to what was always referred to as ‘the bottom pub.’     

            Taking a deep breath, she pushed open the swinging door and stepped in to the almost deserted room.


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