THE ESTATE AGENT suggests a three-month lease to start. ‘A bit isolated. Usually rent it out as a holiday place to families.’ And for a moment the woman thinks he will ask about her family. About a husband, children. But he just shows her where to sign and takes her money. He tells her the house has a heritage listing and goes by two names, depending on which generation of local you talk to. The Witch’s House. The Doll’s House. In the mid-1800s it was owned by the Reverend Barkley, who hanged himself from the balcony. Apparently without rhyme or reason. The agent waits for her reaction and is disappointed to find she’s more interested in the sister she’s heard about. The one who inherited the house, who kept the diary now preserved for holidaymakers. As he turns to leave he tells her: ‘Don’t mind the noises at night, in the roof. That’ll just be the possums.’
That first night she learns something of daily life in the nineteenth century for a woman living on an island off an island off an island. She pores over the diary’s decorative handwriting as if it holds the clue to her own survival here. The weather, then as now, dictated the structure of the day. Good weather meant wash day. There were letters to write and answer; mail seemed at times to be the only connection to civilisation. Boys at military camp. Men at war. A cow calving and the milk to look forward to. Converting forty pounds of apricots into jam. Baking bread and bottling hop beer. Killing snakes. The occasional porpoise washed up on the beach and, once, a whale. Thirty-odd feet of it. Harpooned.
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