Broome’s native and European settlements were clustered on either side of a headland known as Buccaneer Rock. On one side of the town the tin and asbestos buildings of Chinatown huddled between the mile-long jetty and the mangrove swamps. On the other, the pearler’s palm-shaded bungalows sprawled in fragrant gardens along wide shell-grit streets.
The Niland bungalow was surrounded by sweeping verandas wreathed in purple bougainvillea. The garden was heady with the scent of mock orange blossom and frangipani. Trestle tables had been laid out and white-jacketed Malay stewards served iced champagne and claret-cup. There was the sound of too-eager laughter from the tennis courts and the croquet lawn.
George came towards Cameron, hand outstretched. He was wearing a Tussore jacket and trousers, white linen shirt and soft collar. He wore an MCC tie with a pearl tie pin.
‘Cam. Good of you to come. You’ve had a shave!’
‘Aye, the beard comes off when I’m on dry land. Look at this place! It’s a bonny house, George.’
‘Not mine I’m afraid. Will be one day.’
‘You’ve put on a spread.’
‘Yes, not quite the green fields of England, but it’s home for now. You look quite the white master yourself.’
‘Just a new suit and a bath, George. I nearly wore my auld Navy uniform but people sometimes mistake me for an admiral.’
George’s nose wrinkled in another of his ingratiating smiles. ‘Help yourself to a drink. Excuse me a moment. I must go and say hello to the Barringtons. He’s our banker. Duty calls.’
Cam watched him go. The perfect host. By God, it was like a little bit of England transplanted here among the sweating palms and the red dust. He allowed a steward to pour him champagne. ‘No opium in this, is there?’
‘Master?’ the man said.
‘It does nae matter.’
Cameron looked around. The guests at the garden party were all white Europeans. Even though it was late afternoon it was close to a hundred degrees; the men were sweating in tropical whites, the women in long gowns, with parasols to keep off the sun.
It was then he saw her. She was standing alone, at the end of the veranda, watching the croquet game, all green eyes and strawberry hair and willowy. . Two women were squeaking with laughter as they shuffled around the lawn with their mallets. She looked thoroughly bored.
He went over.
‘They say the French gave this game to the English,’ Cameron said. ‘It was their revenge for the battle of Waterloo.’
Kate Flynn turned her head and stared at him. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Croquet. Do you nae find it an enthralling and intellectually demanding game?’
‘It’s chess for the gormless. Do I know you?’
‘My name’s Cameron. My friends call me Cam.’
‘I don’t believe we’ve met.’
‘I just could nae wait for a formal introduction. I hope you’re nae married because you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my whole life.’
‘Were you actually invited to this party?’
‘Aye, I’m an auld friend of George’s. I’ve not been in Broome long, it’s true. My ships’ the China Cloud.’
‘You’re a pearler then.’
‘Aye, but I’ve little to show for it so far.’
Kate pushed a curl from her face with a long finger and Cam experienced the full force of her acute and critical gaze.
‘Do I detect an accent?’
‘I’m a Scot and proud of it. One of God’s tender mercies that I was born on the civilized side of the border. You too by the lilt in your voice.’
‘I was born here but my family are from County Cork.’
‘You have nae told me your name,’ he said.
‘Not without a proper introduction.’
‘You look like a Beatrice.’
‘I do not look like a Beatrice.’
‘Prudence would be my second guess. It implies good breeding and a conservative nature.’
‘If I had something in my glass I should pour it over you.’
‘Then I should refill it. What can I get you?’
‘Kerosene and a match.’
He laughed at that. ‘What’s in your glass, Prudence. Or should I call you Pru?’
‘This is fruit punch. My father put it in my hand. I should rather prefer champagne. Do you think you might find me a glass?’
‘Of course. We Celts should stick together.’
She smiled. ‘My name’s Kate,’ she said.
‘A very pretty name.’ She held out her glass but stopped when she heard someone shouting her name. The timbers shook as Patrick Flynn bounded up the steps and along the veranda. He was resplendent in his white tropical suit, but the two black eyes and swathe of plaster across his nose detracted from an otherwise dignified appearance.
‘Kathleen, get away from that scoundrel!’ He rounded on Cameron. ‘What in God’s name are you doing here?’
‘Ah, the pearl thief. I see your nose is a little shorter and broader than it used to be.’
‘Get away from my daughter!’
The smile vanished from Cameron’s face. ‘Your daughter?’
‘Are you leaving or will I have you thrown out?’
Cameron looked at Kate, then back to Flynn. ‘I dinnae know she was your daughter, Flynn. She certainly does nae look like the daughter of a liar and a cheat.’
Flynn looked around desperately. People were staring.
George Niland suddenly appeared, still smiling. ‘Ah Patrick, you’ve met my old friend Cameron then. We were in the Navy together. A wonderful fellow. He’s a pearler too, you know.’ He put a hand on Flynn’s shoulder and whispered: ‘For God’s sake, keep your voice down. This isn’t the hotel. My father’s watching. I don’t want any brawls on Niland property, all right?’
Cameron glanced at Kate, then at George. ‘It’s all right, George. I do nae want to spoil your party. I can nae play croquet anyway.’ He gave a small bow to Kate. ‘Miss Flynn. It was a very real pleasure.’ Then to George: ‘Thanks for the invitation.’ Finally he turned on Flynn. ‘Till we meet again,’ he said and left.
He walked off.
‘Sorry old boy,’ George said to Flynn, ‘thought it would be an opportunity for the two of you to bury the hatchet, so to speak. Didn’t quite work out the way I planned.’
Flynn drained his champagne glass, scowling. He suddenly needed something a little stronger. ‘Stay away from the bastard,’ he said to his daughter and went to look for more lolly water.
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