Passion, Intrigue and Adventure – read an excerpt from MARALINGA, the dramatic, sweeping novel from by Judy Nunn
Judy Nunn, internationally successful scriptwriter, author and actress, best-known for her role as Ailsa Stewart in the long-running and popular television series Home and Away has written an unforgettable novel. Read the extract from Maralinga below!
In the Spring of 1956, British Lieutenant Daniel Gardiner accepts a twelve-month posting to Maralinga, South Australia on a promise of rapid promotion. Instead he finds himself in a violent and unforgiving landscape, infected with the unique madness and excitement born from involvement in a nuclear testing site.
Adventurous journalist Elizabeth Hoffmann travels halfway around the world searching for answers, and her lost love. Here she discovers the truth about this desolate place, and the story of the innocent people who had walked their land unhindered for forty thousand years, until now . . .
Elizabeth couldn’t understand her father’s passion for oleanders.
Alfred Hoffmann had shifted from London to the leafy county of Surrey, where all forms of glorious flowering shrubs thrived, and yet in the impressive conservatory at the rear of his house he’d chosen to grow nothing but oleanders. A veritable forest of them, in all shapes and sizes. Some remained gangly bushes while others towered to a height of eighteen feet, their leathery leaves sweeping the arched dome of the conservatory. Their pink and white blossoms were not unattractive, but the overall impression was one of unruliness. They were cumbersome plants, there was no denying it, and very much at odds with the surrounding countryside.
The entire situation was bewildering to Elizabeth. For as long as she could remember, her father had been a businessman, and a highly successful businessman at that. If, in his semiretirement, he’d developed an interest in horticulture, which itself was surprising, why was he limiting himself to just one species? And why a species as mundane as the oleander, considered by some to be little more than a noxious weed – perhaps even poisonous, if she were to believe her colleague at The Aldershot Courier-Mail.
‘Don’t go chewing on the leaves, Elizabeth,’ Walter had warned her during an afternoon tea-break, ‘you’ll end up as sick as a dog.’ When she’d laughed, he’d assured her he wasn’t joking.
‘Why on earth did Daddy choose oleanders?’ she finally asked her mother.
‘I’ve no idea.’ Marjorie Hoffmann had accepted her husband’s idiosyncratic behaviour without question, as she always did. ‘Perhaps it’s his love of travel.’ Noting her daughter’s mystified expression, she drifted a typically vague hand through the air as if she were conducting a heavenly choir. ‘I mean they’re so . . . Mediterranean, aren’t they?’
Mother and daughter were very alike in appearance. Above average height and regal of bearing, both had dark eyes and auburn hair offset by the fairest of complexions, creating an overall effect that was striking. They were the sort of women people referred to as handsome. In character, however, they could not have differed more greatly. Elizabeth was already wondering why she’d bothered asking her mother about the oleanders. She should have known better.
‘They’re all over the place in Europe,’ Marjorie blithely continued, ‘particularly in Italy and Greece. I’d rather he’d chosen olive trees myself – symbolism and beauty combined. I would have enjoyed painting olive trees.’ Marjorie’s skill with watercolours was considerable; her landscapes adorned the walls of many a boutique gallery in London. ‘But there you are, that’s Alfred.’
With an impatient shake of her head, Elizabeth gave up on her mother and made the enquiry directly of her father, whose response, although less vague than his wife’s, was ultimately just as unfathomable.
‘I admire the oleander,’ he said after she’d cornered him in the conservatory where he sat with a glass of claret. ‘So hardy. Such a passion for life. It’s heat and drought resistant, you know, can survive anywhere.’ He appeared most gratified by her interest. ‘Versatile too. Is it a shrub or is it a tree?’ Stroking his trim grey beard thoughtfully, he gazed up at the tallest of the plants. ‘As you can see, Elizabeth, it can be either. All dependent upon the way it’s pruned. Don’t you find such adaptability marvellous?’
Elizabeth didn’t, and she didn’t see how her father could either. ‘Somebody told me it’s poisonous,’ she said in her customary blunt fashion, ‘but that’s not true, surely.’
‘Oh yes, quite true. The whole plant’s highly toxic. Leaves, branches, bark – the sap in particular. Ingestion can produce gastrointestinal and cardiac effects, which, I believe, can be fatal – to children anyway, and most certainly to animals.’
‘Ah, so that’s it.’
All had suddenly become clear. Elizabeth’s grin was triumphant. Her father’s chain of pharmaceutical outlets, over which he still presided as chairman, made him first and foremost a businessman, but didn’t alter the fact that he had started out a humble, and highly dedicated, chemist. It was only natural that such a man would be interested in the chemical properties of a potentially lethal plant.
‘The oleanders. You’re making a study of their chemistry.’
‘No, no.’ Her father was dismissive. ‘I doubt whether the toxic properties of the oleander could ever serve any medical or pharmaceutical purpose.’ As he returned her smile, however, there was a gleam in his eye. ‘But you’re right, their poison does add to their fascination. It’s yet another tool in their survival kit, you see. The oleander poisons those who might harm it – extraordinarily tenacious, wouldn’t you agree?’ His question appeared rhetorical. ‘But then tenacity is the key to survival,’ he said. ‘I think I’ll have another glass of claret.’ It was plain he considered he’d answered her question in full. ‘Will you join me, Elizabeth?’
She shook her head. ‘No, thanks, Daddy.’ And, left alone with the oleanders, she heaved a sigh, none the wiser.
Elizabeth Hoffmann was an eminently practical young woman. At times she despaired of her parents’ eccentricity, but she loved them for it too, knowing it was their eccentricity that had afforded her the life opportunities she so valued. For Alfred and Marjorie Hoffmann, eschewing the conventional attitudes of the day and firmly believing in equal rights for women, had offered their daughter every educational advantage and encouraged her in the pursuit of the career she so obviously yearned for. Now, at the age of twenty-three, when most of her contemporaries from Ralston Girls School were settling down to have babies, Elizabeth, having graduated with a BA from St Hugh’s College, Oxford, majoring in History and Literature, had been working as a journalist with The Aldershot Courier-Mail for a whole eighteen months.
‘We’re very proud of you, Elizabeth,’ her father had said when she’d been offered the position fresh out of Oxford.
‘The Courier-Mail’s just the start, Daddy,’ she’d answered. ‘I’ll give it two years in Aldershot, then I’ll be back here in London working for The Times. I intend to be their first female feature writer.’
‘Of course you do, my dear.’
A year later, when her parents had shifted from their grand townhouse in Belgravia to the rambling cottage in Surrey, Elizabeth had been deeply concerned. The property her father had bought was barely five miles from the township of Aldershot in nearby Hampshire, where she lived in a humble boarding house several blocks from the offices of The Courier-Mail. She’d been appalled at the thought that her mother and father might have made such a drastic change to their lifestyle simply in order to be near her.
‘Good heavens above, no,’ Marjorie had replied when her daughter tentatively raised the question. ‘What would be the point? You’ll be back in London soon with The Times, won’t you? Two years, you said. No, no, I’m in need of rural surrounds – I’ve run out of trees in London.’ She’d laughed distractedly. ‘I must have painted every single tree and every single bush in every park in Westminster. Besides, your father very much wanted a country place with a conservatory. For some unknown reason he’s decided to start a garden.’
Elizabeth had hugged her mother fondly, marvelling, as she did, at her parents’ constant ability to surprise.
Over the ensuing months, she’d visited the cottage in Surrey on a regular basis, watching the oleanders grow until she could bear it no longer. But her question had resulted in no answer and the oleanders had remained an unfathomable mystery – until the day she brought Daniel home to meet her parents.
Maralinga is available now from Piatkus. Watch out for Judy's next novel, coming in June, Pacific
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