A dozen giggling teenagers jostled for space before the large mirror, at the Moonan Flat Hotel. They added final touches of eyeliner and mascara. Or struggled into bright nylon dresses with safe necklines. The mixture of perfumes was heady, a tropical garden.
Other girls took their social life as a given. But it had been a close thing for Vivi and me.
Our family farm nestled high in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, miles from anywhere. My sister and I hated our reliance on parents for transport. Hated the groans and cries of ‘’selfish’’ from Mum.
Most of all, we hated her, ‘Why can’t you be like your brother? He never wants to go out.’
Our hopes seemed dashed. Until Cousin Poppy worked her magic. ‘What a shame you’re missing out on the ball, Genn.’
Mum had narrowed her eyes. And, can you believe it? She started planning her outfit.
Our morning excitement was measured in flour, butter and sugar, with fresh eggs from our own chooks. Vivi and I baking and iced cup-cakes for supper, something of contest between girls and women of the district. However, we felt sure Poppy’s ginger sponge would take a prize.
The afternoon whirled in with perfumed baths. We brushed hair until it shone, plucked eyebrows… Finger and toenails painted scarlet. Mum worried about the colour. Was it too bold?
The prospect of a magic evening shimmered before me.
But Mum’s voice broke into my reverie. ‘For goodness sakes stand still while I zip you up.’
I loved my blue organza strapless, a present from Dad. Wriggled into new silver sandals. And pirouetted around the room, enchanted by the swirl of my flared skirt.
Mum glowered. ‘Stop showing off, will you? ’
Envy on Vivi’s face.
She pouted. ‘Might as well go home.’
I laughed. ‘Don't be silly, Sis. You look lovely.’
My mother sighed. ‘Your top's so bare.’ She held out the bolero. ‘Put this on.’
‘Mum – it's 1957 – not 1857.’
‘That's all very well.’ She pursed her lips. ‘For a girl of seventeen…’
‘Mum, people can only see my shoulders.’
In the end she had her way.
We walked across the moonlit fields. Waltz music drifted from the small weatherboard hall. I breathed in the cool, petrichor aroma, arising after morning rain. The stars danced, huge and close. I had a crazy urge to scoop up handfuls, scattering them on my bodice, enhancing the glitter of diamanté.
Mum snapped: ‘Come along, will you?’
Groups of young men lingered around the doorway, sizing up the talent. Awkward in my high-heels, it took will-power to saunter past. Suppose I slipped and fell?
Vivi and I shared a glance. Mum planned to sit beside us, eavesdropping on every word. And boys would be put-off by her censorious expression. Poppy waved at her from across the room. Our joy knew no bounds.
‘Poppy wants you to join her.’
Mum hesitated. ‘But I thought…oh, all right.’
Our anxiety needled away, hidden beneath fake smiles and exaggerated brightness. Did other girls feel the same?
The band struck up a quickstep. Ruddy-faced graziers in moleskins and Western-style shirts made brave efforts with accordions. A red-haired spinster from the post-office was all arms and chin as she coaxed tunes from her fiddle. And there was Sasha, clacking away with his bones. An old beaux, he hadn't seen me yet.
I slipped off my bolero.
The effect was electrifying. Male eyes gravitated to my cleavage. Someone whirled me away. A different boy. Then another. Self-confidence soared.
One asked, ‘How do you keep your top up?
I laughed. ‘Magic. Isn't it obvious?’
Scandalised glances from oldies. I giggled, the first girl, to wear a strapless gown in town.
One boy grinned. ‘Come with me to the movies on Saturday night, Princess?’
I cursed being geographically impossible.
Then Sasha was at my side. Grinning, he held me close. I felt a tinge of nostalgia for old times… ‘You’re still my lovely girl.’
A stranger smiled. ‘Shame there isn't a competition tonight. You'd be Belle of the Ball.’
Then I danced with Matt, on a working holiday from New Zealand. He told of snow-capped peaks reflected in pristine lakes, of braided rivers. ‘They surge across meadows of smooth stones in the spring melt.’
Vivi's dancing partner was his friend, Ray.
Matt smiled. ‘We’d love to take you home.’
Vivi looked at me. ‘Why not? We’re staying the night with Poppy at Dry Creek. But… we’ll have to ask our parents.’
It seemed a marvellous opportunity for a normal date. Or so we thought.
We sought approval from Dad. ‘Ask your mother.’
She said, ‘Ask Dad.’
I flashed a reassuring smile. ‘We'll bring the boys to meet you.’
One dance followed another. Reluctant to miss a minute of the fun, we delayed the introductions.
Poppy later filled us in on the ramifications. ‘Gossips had a field day over your dress. It worried your mother. And she felt anxious about the boys. ‘The girls were going to introduce them. Where are they?’
Poppy told me she had laughed. ‘The night’s young, Genn.’
For ages I had exchanged chemistry-laden glances with a boy called Johnny. Thanks to my isolation, we had never dated. But in the progressive Barn Dance, I found myself in his arms. Johnny’s eyes glowed with mingled surprise and pleasure. ‘Dessie! I didn't expect to see you here.’
His lopsided grin made my pulses race. A chuckle. ‘You never know when I'll turn up.’
‘I can see that.’ He held me seconds longer than was necessary.
I glided to the next partner. Johnny had dated a Scone girl that night. Yet almost every time I looked up, his glance met mine…
Matt and Ray took us to supper. They marvelled at our country feast – sponges, lamingtons, scones, slices, apple pies… And who should be sitting directly opposite?
Johnny glanced at Matt with an expression of pure jealousy.
Afterwards, the tempo of music sped up. Oh the whirling couples, the frenzy of flying feet. The last dance left us breathless. The boys wiped their brows. Dizzy with laughter and exhilaration, I wished that night could last forever.
We made our way past tired children, collected from the sleeping annex. Youngsters grabbed balloons, became entangled in paper streamers.
Our parents stood in the foyer, grim-faced.
I made the introductions. ‘Matthew, Raymond.’
Dad towered above us, arms crossed. Voice icy, he asked: ‘What are your second names?’
His interrogation went on and on. My embarrassment grew. I longed for some friendly chit-chat. A discussion of their work-experience in Australia. An invitation to visit the farm…
Finally, Dad ran out of questions. ‘Very well; you may drive the girls home. However…’
He insisted on a convoy. Mum and Dad in front, us in the middle. Poppy and Charlie's car at the rear.
The boys shook their heads in disbelief.
Descending the wooden steps, a familiar voice made derogatory remarks to Matt. It couldn’t be…
We drove off. And I glimpsed Johnny, illuminated by the headlights. Why had he spoken with such vitriol to Matt?
Our departure would become the talk of the town. One of the locals drove past, yelling, ‘Good on yer, Kiwis.’
Mat laughed. He gave a triumphant blast on the horn. On arrival, we shared a friendly goodnight kiss, before the boys drove off.
Luckily, they didn't accept our invitation to coffee.
Next day Poppy told us, ‘Your Dad stayed up, ready to investigate. If the lads hadn't driven straight back past the cabin, where he and your Mum were staying…’
Vivi and I exchanged a stunned glance. Would Dad’s interference never stop?