The Tea Room

Wangaratta in 1875 was a bustling township. While it was hardly as “modern” as Melbourne, a city occupied by those who were ill-suited for rural life and who seemed to largely look down their noses at country folk, it fulfilled the purpose of providing more refined lifestyle for those living on the land than what many of the surrounds provided. What it lacked in salons and galleries it made up for in shops and a more sedate pace of life. Only a few miles from here was Greta, which could adequately be described as a dustbowl, with its dry earth and yellow grass. Here selectors eked out a living, barely scraping by and often having to find ways to bring money into the home in order to supplement the meagre yields from their crops that kept them going long enough to get the next harvest. Sometimes these ways required breaking a law or two. Further north was Beechworth, a mining boom town that never found out that the gold rush ended. Here it always seemed to be teetering on the edge of becoming “Melbourne in the northeast” but the locals, while urbane, still retained the flashing on their edges that kept them apart from their peers from what was once “Batmania”. These three formed something of a trinity that would, in coming years, bear a quartet that would firmly entrench these places in history. Four young men, born and bred in this new country, who would challenge the autocratic authority of the old one and forever divide the nation into their supporters and detractors.

On a mild summer day, Steve Hart, a lanky sixteen year-old, rode through Wangaratta South. While still nestled in verdant and fertile terrain, this area lacked the buildings that comprised the heart of Wangaratta proper. Located below the Warby Ranges, the place was predominantly farms benefitting from the ideal environmental conditions for growing crops. This was Steve’s stomping ground, though his slight build and spare limbs meant that it was less of a stomp and more of a tap. He sat slightly crouched in the saddle, the stirrups high, looking like at any moment he could break out into a full gallop. After all, he was one of the best local jockeys and had a reputation for showing off his prowess with horseflesh at the drop of a hat. In his hand was the peel from a recently demolished orange. He tossed the peel away as he spotted his target and ran his hand over his chin to collect any traces of juice. Before him, a small weatherboard building with a shingle roof proudly proclaimed on a wooden sign that inside were tea rooms.

Steve dismounted and guided the horse along the street until he reached the building. Through the window he could see squatters’ wives sitting down for Devonshire tea and scones. These tea rooms were run by Ann Jones, a wily Irish woman from Tipperary. Steve could see her bobbing about behind the front counter, busily going about her business. She was always busy and usually looked frazzled or half-panicked. He hitched the mare up and straightened himself out. He looked handsome in his town clothes — grey tweed suit, linen shirt, green silk tie, Chelsea boots and a crimson sash around his waist. He took off his hat and smoothed out his well oiled and combed hair. On his cheeks were a few stray hairs he had missed when shaving. He strode confidently into the building, limping slightly from an old wound in his right leg. An improperly set break – the result of a horse riding accident at the beginning of his jockeying career – had left his shin deformed, though his flared trousers usually hid it well. He raised his hand and extended his spidery fingers in order to gain Mrs. Jones’s attention.

“Oh, I’ll be with ye in just a moment, young Stephen,” Ann sung out as she walked past with a silver tea service for a middle-aged woman in a grey silk dress. Steve hooked his hat up on the coat stand by the door. Through a door behind the counter he briefly saw into the kitchen as Ann’s eldest daughter, a twelve year-old also named Ann, set about brewing up tea.

He was soon directed to a table in the back of the dining room where he ordered his usual treat of tea and scones with plum jam, plucking the requisite fare from a leather pouch he wore on a belt that was hidden under his sash. He handed the coinage to Mrs. Jones with a weak smile. As he waited, Steve planted his hands on the table and examined his knuckles. His hands were delicate, yet carried thick calluses on the places where his reins would rub. His mother had bought him a handsome pair of leather gloves to wear while riding, but the feel of heavy, oiled leather straps against his naked skin was an important part of his riding. He wanted to be like a centaur, at one with the beast as he rode, but felt the gloves somehow interfered with his control. He never let his mother know about the gloves though he suspected she already knew.

Soon his order arrived. Thick, crumbly scones with sweet plum jam. He immediately picked up a knife and began slathering the scones with the preserve and bit into the treat with stubby teeth. To wash it down he slurped tea from a porcelain teacup. It was a strange juxtaposition of the crude and the refined to see his dirt-ingrained fingers daintily lifting the fragile ceramic teacup to his lips. He took another mouthful of scone, coating his fingertips in sticky jam.

Steve licked his fingers clean and began to flip through a copy of the Ovens and Murray Advertiser he spotted discarded on a seat nearby, hoping to get the results from the recent race meetings. As he read, Jane Jones, the ten year-old daughter of the proprietor, cleared the table. Steve looked up from his reading to thank the girl who smiled at him like a cherub.

Jane was a typically serious child. Her mother always endeavoured to shape Jane into a hard worker from the moment she could carry a tea service. Thus as a result, despite her appearance, Jane was far more mature than her years. She was quite fond of the Harts who visited frequently. She saw Steve and his siblings as something akin to cousins. She thought Steve to be a sweet boy, yet afflicted with an incorrigible cheek. Her mother agreed.

Ann Jones took a brief break from fussing and stood beside Steve.

“How’s yer ma?” Ann asked.

“Yeah, good,” Steve replied, slurping his tea.

“And yer da?”

“He’s good too. Busy.”

Steve drifted away in his mind for a moment and thought about his father, who had lately been teaching him how to remove tree stumps from the ground. Steve wasn’t fond of the job but it put coins in his pouch for indulgences like this. Ann planted herself in the chair opposite Steve.

“Have ye been behaving?” She asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Sergeant Steele come in a few days ago looking fer ye. Have ye been getting up to mischief, then?”

Steve began to worry. He knew that Steele had been waiting for him to slip up. The sergeant had a vindictiveness about him that meant that if he suspected someone of being a miscreant he would hound them until they did something – anything – to vindicate him. As Steve had taken to hanging around the streets of Greta and Wangaratta with a jumbled collection of larrikins that called themselves “the Greta Mob”, Steele had set his sights on the otherwise respectable son of successful selectors. The thought of Steele sitting atop his government issue horse, looking down his nose with beady eyes at him caused Steve to shift nervously in his seat.

“That trap’s got a down on me because I knock about with the Kellys and Lloyds in Greta. I done nothing wrong, Mrs. Jones, honest,” said Steve.

“Ah, I believe ye, boy. Between the two of us, I can’t say I’m fond of him meself,” Ann said, clapping her hand over Steve’s reassuringly.

As Ann returned to her work Steve tucked the paper under his arm and made for the door.

“Thanks, Mrs. Jones,” he said, taking his hat from the coat stand. He breezed through the door onto the walkway. Just before mounting he planted his hat on his crown so that the brim came low over his eyes. He pulled the elastic chinstrap down and hooked it under his nose. As he took the reins and settled into the saddle he brushed open his coat to show off his red sash. If he was going to be hounded for being a larrikin he may as well look the part, he supposed.

As he rode back to his home, the sun began to sink, painting the sky with ribbons of vermilion, tangerine and blonde. Steve jabbed his spurs into the horse’s flanks and tried to make it home before it got dark, leaving the tiny wooden tea room behind him.

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