I had just closed the shop after a brisk Saturday morning’s trade and was enjoying the sunshine on my back. With shirtsleeves folded high over my elbows, I rhythmically rubbed a fine steel wool pad across the top of a table. Back and forth, back and forth. It was an immensely satisfying pastime, for I did not really consider it work. Giving a piece of furniture a new lease on life, and seeing its renewed vitality, was very fulfilling. Glancing down, I passed my palm over the raw grain of the tabletop, pushing aside the sawdust. A deep chestnut colour shone in the afternoon sun.
A crunch of gravel on the drive startled me and I turned to see two elderly, well-dressed ladies approaching. They modelled their tweed skirts and sensible shoes, gloves and hats with such pride they should have been at the picnic races rather than outside the dusty corrugated iron workshop where they found themselves.
‘Excuse me, are you Mr Salter?’ asked the prim lady on the left.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘I am Miss Prudence Budd,’ she said. ‘This is my sister, Miss Georgina Budd,’ indicating her shyer, slightly retreating, companion. ‘We have been given your name by a mutual friend and told that we can count on you for the utmost discretion.’
My curiosity was piqued. ‘Yes,’ I said, not feeling quite as confident as the affirmation implied.
Miss Prudence drew in a deep breath, steadied her hands over her sensible brown handbag and began. ‘Our dear brother Angus passed away some months ago. He was a bachelor. Georgina and I are all that is left of the family.’ I detected a small hesitation in her voice, but she squared her shoulders and continued the explanation as the soft breeze lifted her silk neck scarf to tickle her cheek.
‘While we are no experts, Mr Salter, we recognise there is a considerable quantity of quality furniture that other families, I’m sure, would be very pleased to own. Never having had to deal with an estate before, I’m a little unsure how we proceed.’ She paused and glanced at her sister, who remained tightlipped.
‘Miss Budd, if I can be of help by giving you an indication of the value of items, I’m more than happy to do so,’ I replied.
‘Oh thank you, Mr Salter, but I feel you may be misunderstanding our wishes. We do not simply want the items valued. We’d like to sell them. We’ve made some enquiries and are of the understanding that this is what you do.’
‘Right,’ I laughed nervously. ‘Well, I’m sure I can be of assistance. If you will just bear with me for a moment, I’ll make a note of the address.’
I dusted off my hands on a dirty rag, noting their wrinkled noses and frowning disapproval, and drew a pencil and diary out of my shirt pocket.
‘Brighella is the name of the property. It is on the Sturt Highway west of Wagga.’
I looked up briefly from my note taking. I’m sure Miss Prudence detected the spark of excitement in my eyes. Brighella was a property of great renown. My mind leapt ahead, imagining the wealth of treasures that awaited my appraisal. I licked the tip of my pencil and concentrated on the diary’s pages cupped in my hand.
Once the directions to Brighella were dictated for my benefit, I folded the stub of a pencil in the diary and returned the items to my pocket.
The sisters nodded as one, seeming to mentally agree that the task they had set out to do was complete. As they turned to leave, Miss Prudence hesitated, reaching out to touch Miss Georgina’s arm. She cleared her throat ever so slightly and looked me directly in the eyes. ‘We require your absolute discretion on this matter, Mr Salter. One would not like to know that one’s business was discussed with others whom it does not concern.’
I was taken aback but knew exactly what these good ladies meant. Wagga was like most country boroughs. The calendar was bookmarked with small-town gossip and the football final.
‘Good day, Mr Salter. We shall see you tomorrow.’
Brighella was one of the oldest properties of the Wagga district. Its thousands of acres spread across some of the richest soil in the Riverina. The lazy Murrumbidgee meandered through the eastern side of the estate. I turned off the highway and drove down the long drive, past paddocks with cattle grazing in knee-high grass and resting under the undulating boughs of giant gum trees. The homestead came into view, nestled high on the riverbank.
Made of sandstock brick with thick sandstone pointing on each corner and under the sills, the home rose majestically to a dark slate roof. No expense had been spared when the homestead had been built in the mid-1800s. French doors opened onto the wide veranda, which was bordered with heavily perfumed red roses. Deep sandstone steps guided visitors from the driveway to the cedar entrance door. The windows gleamed in the sun, the veranda was swept clean. This was a property maintained with pride.
The Misses Budd stepped out onto the veranda as I parked the ute. Having been in business for only a few years, I was still practising my casual yet serious patter when dealing with deceased estates, endlessly measuring my speech for the right mixture of humility and business acumen. I took a deep breath and strode up the stairs to meet the sisters.
‘Good morning, Mr Salter,’ said Miss Prudence. ‘It’s a beautiful day.’ I deduced that Miss Prudence did all the talking, as Miss Georgina simply nodded in my direction.
‘Good morning, ladies. Yes it certainly is,’ I replied. The sisters led the way into the cool of the homestead.
Brighella had been the childhood home of the Budd sisters and their deceased brother. A generation prior, it had been their father’s childhood home. Their father had married the neighbour’s daughter and on their wedding day he brought his new bride home to Brighella where they went on to raise their three children. Upon their parents’ deaths, Angus Budd had inherited Brighella and his sisters, Miss Prudence and Miss Georgina, had moved to their mother’s childhood home, eighteen miles away.
Brighella bulged with the history of generations. Everything bought for the home had been the best, and nothing had been discarded over the years. The large reception areas boasted twelve-foot ceilings with plastered cornices and ceiling roses. Faded wallpapers lined the walls and delicate glass lightshades on the wall sconces emitted a soft glow. Eight dining chairs around the cedar extension table grew to be twelve, when I found another four chairs in the enclosed veranda. Wardrobes, beds, armchairs and tables – it was all there in multiples. A house clearance that would keep the Gurwood Street shop in stock for months to come.