The town of Holgate is situated approximately 60 kilometres south of Peppercorn Patch. Its population of roughly 50,000 people far surpasses that of Peppercorn Patch’s 4,000. There is only one road that leads out of Peppercorn Patch and it winds its way over mountain ranges known as Holgate’s Gap. The treacherous terrain keeps the two towns divided, though both towns rely on each other heavily. Holgate relies on Peppercorn Patch’s residents to visit its many major services that the smaller town cannot provide, whilst the town of Peppercorn Patch depends on the abundance of tourists visiting from Holgate each year, especially during the warmer months. The tourists come to flock at camping grounds along Helling River, as well as to trek along the many walking tracks in the hills that surround the small town.
Valerie Pickering knows all too well of the town’s reliance on the tourist economy. As the owner of the local pub, The Grand Hotel, those tourists help her to make ends meet. Any day that she does not open her establishment, she loses money. And it’s money that Valerie cannot afford to lose.
“Joanne, honey,” Valerie Pickering stirs Joanne Evans from her sleep. “I’m sorry to leave you, Jo, but I need to go open The Grand. It’s pretty warm and I’m sure there’ll be a pretty thirsty crowd.”
“Of course, Aunty Val,” Joanne smiles at her aunty. “Please don’t worry about me. I’ll be just fine.”
Valerie leans over Joanne’s hospital bed and kisses her niece on the forehead before squeezing her hand. “I know you’ll be just fine. You are a brave one, my little Jo.”
“You’re the brave one, Aunty Val,” Joanne replies. “You’ve always been there for me.”
“Not always…” Valerie starts to say.
“You’ve always done the best you can.”
“You’re the one who’s always looked after me, Jo. And it’s my time to look after you. When they let you out of this place, you’re coming back to live with me and I’m going to take care of you.”
“I know you will.” Joanne squeezes Val’s hand this time.
“I promise I will, Jo. And I’m going to quit drinking.”
Edward Helling had been the last person to see Gretel Helling alive. She had left the house one morning as she had done nearly every other morning to go on her morning walk along the tracks through the hills behind the Helling House. When she hadn’t arrived home at the usual time an hour later, Edward had begun to get worried. He had known that Gretel hadn’t been herself in the few months that had passed since her son, and Edward’s adopted son, Jack Helling, had been killed. She had fallen into a depressed state and had hardly left the house apart from her daily trek through the trees. She had once told Edward that the daily walk was her refuge.
“Your mother hasn’t returned home yet,” Edward anxiously informed Elias Helling, his other adopted son. “We have to go look for her.”
Both men set out on a quest that morning in search of Gretel. Their search ended an hour later at the foot of a rocky cliff.
The townspeople gathered in large numbers again to farewell another one of its residents. Many were saddened by the loss of one of the town’s most popular residents, particularly Edward and Elias Helling, whose family had been halved in only a few short months. Gretel’s cause of death had been clear; she had died from injuries sustained from her fall from the top of the cliff. What hadn’t been clear was how she had fallen. Mystery remained as to whether Gretel had accidentally fallen on her walk, or whether she had decided to end her pain and take her own life.
The rain clouds that start forming over Peppercorn Patch during the afternoon drive many of Valerie Pickering’s potential customers away and results in a fairly quiet shift for the publican. As the afternoon rolls on, the rain clouds become heavier and the heavens open up.
Only a few locals remain by night fall, and Valerie finds herself eager to have a drink or two with her regulars. It is the thought of her niece, Joanne, in the hospital bed, however, that stops her. She knows that Joanne will need her help in recovery over the next few months. And she’s made a promise to her niece. A promise that she intends to keep.
“What does one have to do to get a drink around here?” Valerie can hear a familiar voice say behind her as she busily cleans the bar. Her heart begins to beat faster as she recognises who the voice belongs to.
“Could it possibly be?” Valerie turns to face her new patron.
“Here in the flesh! Have you missed me Val?”
On the other side of the bar stands an ominous figure which makes Valerie partly fearful. She hasn’t seen the woman in front of her for many years and the last time they saw each other they almost nearly killed each other.
“Constance?” Valerie is still bewildered.
Constance laughs heartily as her large body shakes. “It’s me dear! I’m back!”
Without saying another word, Valerie Pickering picks up a bottle of Scotch, pours a large amount into a glass and swallows the entire amount in one go.
Years passed and Edward and Elias both managed the running of the Helling Bros. business. Fairly soon they were being offered large sums of money for the farm land they were using. Over time they sold off most of the land until they only had a small parcel of land left. By this time the Helling Bros. business had ceased to exist and Elias Helling had set up the local camping grounds to cash in on the booming tourist industry. Elias married and had a child of his own; a daughter.
An elderly Edward Helling years later sat propped up in his bed. His son, Elias, sat by his side. Edward knew that he only had a few short breaths left before he would say goodbye to his son for the last time.
“My son,” Edward spoke slowly to Elias. “You have been my pride and joy. You would have been my brother’s pride and joy too.”
“You’re my father. Not your brother, Robert. You have been the one that has been there to look after me and treat me like his own son,” Elias fought to hold back tears.
“There are many things in this world that will remain a mystery, Elias,” Edward informed his son. “There are some things from our family’s past that should also remain a mystery.”
Elias Helling was intrigued by what his elderly father was trying to say to him.
“Our family has many secrets, Elias,” Edward continued. “And if you ever want to find out what they are, then all you need to do is open this box.”
Edward handed Elias a small brown wooden box. On the front of the box was a bronze keyhole surrounded by the engraved initials, H.B.
“Only open if your heart tells you, Elias,” Edward warned his son. “But remember that some things are best left unopened.”
Elias looked the box over. “Where’s the key?” he asked his father.
It was too late. His father had found peace.
“What brings you back to town?” Valerie Pickering asks the large woman in front of her.
“What kind of welcome is that?” Constance says to Valerie.
“You’ve certainly given me quite a surprise,” Valerie explains.
“I can see that your habit hasn’t died yet!” Constance points to the third glass of scotch that Valerie has poured for herself.
Valerie pours the scotch into the bar’s basin and pushes the empty glass across the bench.
“Well, if you must know,” Constance leans in close to Valerie over the bar, “I drove in from Holgate this morning to see my father. He’s not well. He’s in hospital and I don’t think he’ll last the week. I’ll stay for a few days.”
“I’m sorry to hear,” Valerie says to Constance.
“Don’t be sorry. He’s had a good innings. He is acting a bit strange though. He gave me this box.” Constance lifts a small wooden box out of her bag. Valerie can see the initials H.B. engraved on the front.
“What’s inside?” Valerie asks.
“Who knows? And my father doesn’t know either apparently,” Constance rolls her eyes. “He says he never opened it. Something about leaving things unopened…or so he says his father told him. I might just throw it in the trash. Seems pretty worthless to me.”
“He wouldn’t have given it to you if he thought it was worthless, surely,” Valerie suggests.
“Maybe I’ll just hold onto it and give it to my son when I’m old,” Constance laughs. “Speaking of my son, I did get a message from him telling me that he was visiting Peppercorn Patch.”
Valerie Pickering’s heart begins to beat fast again as she fears what she has to tell the woman in front of her.
“Have you seen him?” Constance asks Valerie. “Have you seen my Thomas?”
Next Episode – Monday 23rd March