‘It’s Sunday morning on Australia’s radio show.’
The twang of a banjo exploded in Sarah’s ears, hauling her aggressively and abruptly out of a deliciously deep sleep. Worse than that, it imploded a wondrous dream of a place where she floated peacefully, bathing in all its wonder. A place no one expected her to juggle the transport logistics of bread and cheese, solve staffing issues, find missing wallets/keys/phones/items of school uniforms/homework—in fact, no one was asking her to do anything at all. It was her definition of bliss.
She lay momentarily stunned, her heart pounding and her mind struggling to compute more than No! Too early! Go away! The realisation it was Mother’s Day dribbled into her consciousness more slowly, before jabbing her like the sharp end of stick.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why didn’t you check the alarm last night?
She’d shared her life with Alex for twenty-two years and she was intimate with the fact that eighty per cent of the time he forgot to switch off the six-day-a-week radio alarm on Saturday night. So here she was awake in the dark at 6.30 am on Mother’s Day. Fabulous! The temptation to wallow in a seductive bath of ‘why today of all days?’ tugged at her, but martyrdom wasn’t a coat that fit. All her life she’d been a problem solver, a fixer—a woman who got things done. Sure, she was awake ridiculously early on a day that was technically ‘her day’, when sleeping in was an essential part of the manual, but was it an opportunity? Carpe diem and all that jazz? She smiled. This year, they only had one kid at home and she’d bet Gus wouldn’t be up this early, giving her and Alex plenty of time to celebrate.
Rolling over, she moved to spoon her husband. Her arms touched warm but empty sheets just as Alex’s feet hit the floor with their usual thump. A streak of cool air zoomed in under the duvet, skating up her spine. She sat up in the dark.
‘You’re going for a ride?’
The sound of lycra snapping against skin answered her. She worked at not sighing out loud and actively bit off the words, ‘It’s Mother’s Day’. There was no point uttering them.
When the children were little, Alex had helped them make her breakfast in bed but the moment they’d become teenagers he’d stepped back, saying, ‘She’s your mother, not mine.’ Apparently, Mother’s Day had never got close to an event for the Hadfield family. Sarah tried to take the same hands-off approach to Father’s Day but she was hopeless; each year she found herself reminding the kids it was coming up, cajoling each of them into making a card, and she always arranged a family outing.
‘Go back to sleep,’ Alex said, his early-morning voice raspy.
The yellow light from his bedside lamp penetrated her closed eyelids, turning everything orange. ‘Argh.’ She pulled the duvet over her head.
The light snapped off and as if that was their cue, the dawn chorus of raucous cockatoos screeched as loudly and as stridently as a fire siren. She flinched; the sound mocking her for entertaining thoughts of sleeping in. Alex silently patted her shoulder and she sleepily raised her head for a kiss. She missed and her cheek hit his shoulder as his hair brushed her forehead. Oh well. At least they were still trying after two decades together. It was more than could be said for many of their peers.
Over the last few years, there’d been a cascade of divorces in Mingunyah. The domino effect had started after Bianca Russo drank too much red wine at a Rotary dinner, grabbed the microphone and announced to the room she was leaving her husband. More marriages went on to fail, and each time Sarah heard of another separation she found herself examining her own marriage. Alex didn’t seem to need the same reflection. Their discussion on the night of Bianca’s bombshell was a case in point.
‘You know what this means?’ Alex’s coffee-coloured eyes had shone with the same enthusiasm that had captured her heart two decades earlier.
‘That yet another marriage of people our age has hit the wall?’
A momentary look of remorse crossed his face. ‘Yeah, that part’s sad. But their land abuts the farm. We could build a fourth dairy. Milk another two thousand goats and secure our milk supply. This is the next step in taking our cheese beyond Victoria.’
It was a tempting idea, one that would free them up from relying on other milk suppliers. ‘They may not want to sell.’
‘Oh, I think they will. Ed paid top dollar for that place and it’s heavily geared. There’s no way Bianca will get her share of the marriage assets without them selling. And we’ll be waiting in the wings with an offer they can’t refuse.’
‘Look out, Australia,’ she teased, ‘Mingunyah Cheese is coming.’
‘We’re not stopping at Australia. Think of the foodies living on the West Coast of the US. They’ll fall over themselves to get their hands on our healthy, organic cheese.’
As always, his excitement was both terrifying and infectious. ‘I always knew life with you wouldn’t be boring.’
‘Damn straight.’ He’d grinned and kissed her again before demonstrating exactly how exciting and exhilarating life with him could be.
Back then, they’d thought the goal of entering the American market was the ultimate prize, but they’d been wrong—China was the crowning glory. They’d opened an office there and now exported their marinated goat’s cheese and sheep’s yoghurt. It was beyond their wildest dreams and recently, with a middle management structure firmly in place, they finally had time to explore interests outside of the business. Sarah was yet to get out from under her workload and family commitments but Alex had committed to cycling.
He was a cycling store’s dream come true, from his state-of-the-art Italian, full carbon-fibre bike with its lights, computer and little solar panel for charging his phone, to his gloves for every season and booties with heated insoles. Given that winter mornings were below zero, it made sense. Sarah didn’t begrudge him the thousands of dollars he’d spent on getting kitted out—it wasn’t as if they couldn’t afford it. In fact their bakery benefitted from cycling tourists and skiers, selling them, among other things, marinated fruit muffins nicknamed turbo buns.
Like every other morning, Sarah lay in bed listening to the familiar sounds of cycling shoes clicking into cleats, the gentle whirr of tyres, and the clunk of gears changing until they faded into the distance. Now fully awake, she ran through her options. She could stay in bed and wait for Gus to wake, remember it was Mother’s Day and give her breakfast in bed. The only flaw with that plan was that, without his father or younger sister in the house, the chances of Gus waking before ten and remembering the significance of the day were slim.
Always practical, Sarah got up and, alone in the kitchen on Mother’s Day, made herself coffee and baked a cake.
A rather sad and pathetic-looking cake.
Sarah cocked her head to the left and studied the offering. She couldn’t believe her no-fail chocolate cake had sunk on her. But then again, nothing was going according to plan so far and it wasn’t even ten yet. Grabbing dark chocolate from the pantry and cream from the fridge, she went into fix-it mode just as she had the week before when her sister-in-law Anita had texted, Doubt our plan to run away for a spa day on Mother’s Day will fly. Margaret will want family lunch
Sarah had immediately texted back, Riverbend 12.00
Why had she done that? Sure, she’d hosted Mother’s Day for her mother for years, but now that Anita and Cameron were living in Mingunyah, her lovely sister-in-law, who was a stellar cook, had probably been about to offer to host lunch herself. Anita’s mother had died before she’d married Cameron, so although Mother’s Day was a bittersweet day for her, Anita had never known the inherent problem of the day—being a daughter and a mother.
For years Sarah juggled trying to have her own day as well as making sure her mother felt special too. More than once it had culminated in hot tears and chest-crushing frustration. After one particularly disappointing year, she’d pretty much accepted that until her mother was no longer with them, expecting to have Mother’s Day exclusively for herself was both unrealistic and angst-inducing. Since then, Sarah kept breakfast for herself—although this year even that seemed in peril—and devoted the rest of the day to being a dutiful daughter. Her brother, Cameron, was a dutiful son on the occasions it suited him. Their younger sister, Ellie, was unfamiliar with any aspects of the term ‘dutiful’.
Sarah absently licked the spatula dripping with the remnants of the melted chocolate and fervently hoped her emergency cake ministrations wouldn’t send anyone into a sugar coma.
‘Happy Mother’s Day, Mum.’ Gus, her gangly, almost seventeen-year-old son ambled over, wrapped his arms around her and gave her a hug. ‘Bit hard to give you brekkie in bed when you’re already up.’
She resisted glancing pointedly at the clock. ‘True, but I’ll happily eat it with you at the kitchen table.’
He scratched his head and opened the fridge, staring into it as if willing whatever it was he was looking for to levitate from the shelf and float into his hand.
‘Are there any croissants?’
‘Did you buy any?’
He looked sheepish as he closed the fridge door. ‘Where’s Dad? Is he in town?’
Sarah gave in and checked the clock, surprised to see it was ten thirty. ‘He was riding to Gravitt’s Lookout. I thought he’d be back by now.’
‘I’ll call him and get him to buy some.’
Sarah did the calculations in her head and knew that wasn’t going to work. ‘How about you toast me some of our fruit loaf and slather it in butter? Then be my kitchenhand so we’re ready when the hordes descend.’
Gus grinned. ‘I’ll even make you a cup of tea.’
‘You’re my favourite middle child.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘One day Finn and I are going to get you to admit you like Emma best.’
‘Only on Mother’s Day,’ she quipped, tousling his chestnut hair as if he was seven. ‘And only because she remembers the croissants.’
Of her three children, Gus was the sportiest and yet he was also the most reserved. A talented footballer and skier, he was the quiet one among his friends, often surrounded by noise and girls— hugging, squealing girls. Sarah noticed that other boys with similar skills always carried themselves with an air of confidence—a certain swagger—but the moment Gus walked off the footy field or hung up his skis, he seemed to retreat into himself just a little. This bothered her but whenever she mentioned it to Alex, he’d sigh and give her a look that inferred she was worrying over nothing.
‘That kid,’ he’d say, pride lighting up his face, ‘has the world at his feet. If he plays his cards right, he’ll end up playing footy in the AFL.’
‘Hmm?’ Sarah was on her knees with her head in the fridge playing Tetris to make room for the cake. The buzz muffled Gus’s words but she thought she heard ‘play’.
At yesterday’s match, Gus took a spectacular flying leap and cleanly marked the ball. Slowly running in, taking his time, he kicked the winning goal right on the siren. Not only did the entire team slap his back, the crowd slapped Alex’s. Her husband glowed with as much pride as if the ball had come off his own boot.
Carefully sliding the cake onto the middle shelf, Sarah rose and closed the fridge door, pleased Gus was mentioning the moment. He generally underplayed his achievements. ‘It was an impressive play, darling. Your coach was beside himself.’
‘Yeah.’ Gus’s hand gripped the handle of the kettle. ‘He was.’
Sarah heard resignation instead of pride and gave him her full attention. ‘Isn’t that a good thing?’
He dropped his gaze, concentrating on pouring boiling water over the tea leaves. She waited for him to say more but his large hands fumbled with the tea cosy.
‘G’day, mate.’ Alex appeared in the kitchen, sweaty and red cheeked. ‘Everyone at the café’s talking about your mark. Old Daryl Cotter said it reminded him of your grandfather.’
Confusion crossed Gus’s face. ‘Grandpa didn’t play footy.’
‘He’s talking about my dad.’ Sarah was sure she must have told Gus at some point over the years that her father had played for the Mingunyah Tigers. If she hadn’t, then her mother certainly would have said something. Mind you, her father’s playing days finished not long after he married Margaret so footy hadn’t really been part of their shared life. Come to think of it, her father had never talked about footy much at all. His only nod to his time on the team was a dusty framed photo that hung off a rusty nail over his workbench in the shed. The fit young player staring out at her with a roguish glint in his eyes had always seemed a totally different person from the man who was her father. He’d been older and greyer, and the roguish glint had been replaced by a businessman’s preoccupied stare.
‘Ask Gran about it at lunch. She’s probably still got some photos.’
‘Photos?’ Alex snorted. ‘Her entire house is a shrine to Kevin.’
A ripple of irritation ran along Sarah’s veins and she tried to shake it off. After all, there was no good reason for it—Alex was right. Decades after her father’s death, her mother still kept many of his things on display, but the football memorabilia was not part of the collection.
A memory came to her—clear and bright—tumbling her back to when she was eleven. Determined to avoid her mother and her demands that she ‘clean up that tip of a room’, Sarah was hiding in the shed. Looking for something to pass the time, she went exploring and, under a faded old green tarp, she discovered a pile of dust-covered boxes. It was the equivalent of finding lost treasure. One was filled with tarnished football trophies, all engraved with her father’s name. Inspired, she rummaged about in the old biscuit tin he kept on his workbench and, among the tins of dubbin and boot polish, she found the Silvo. Listening to Wham on her Walkman, she spent an enjoyable hour polishing the trophies and bringing them back to their former glory. When she was satisfied that they couldn’t shine any brighter, she ran into the house waving the gleaming cups.
‘Look, Mum!’ she said proudly.
Her mother’s face rapidly stiffened into hard and sharp lines. ‘That’s what you’ve been doing instead of cleaning your room? Take those straight back to where you found them.’
‘Why? You’ve got Cameron’s tennis trophies on the mantelpiece, so why not Dad’s?’
‘Do. As. You’re. Told.’ Margret ground out the words as if Sarah was being excruciatingly difficult and trying her patience to breaking point. ‘Or do you want to feel the sting of the wooden spoon?’ Having recently experienced a series of run-ins with that spoon, Sarah reluctantly trudged back to the shed. Her submission to her mother’s request, however, wasn’t enough to stop the simmer of resentment swelling in her chest.
‘It’s not fair,’ she complained to her father as she sat on the end of his workbench after tea.
His hazel eyes held only resignation. ‘They don’t fit with your mother’s decor.’
‘Neither do Cam’s!’ An unfamiliar hot spot burned in her chest and she rubbed it.
Her father marked the wood he was measuring with his flat red carpenter’s pencil. ‘It’s a rule that mothers display their son’s trophies.’
‘Then wives should have to display their husband’s trophies.’
He laughed and stuck the pencil behind his ear in his familiar and reassuring way. ‘It doesn’t work that way, blossom.’
‘I’ll keep them in my room then,’ she said indignantly, confused by her father’s acceptance of what she clearly saw as a double standard.
‘Tell you what. How about I teach you how to make a cabinet for them? We can mount it on this wall.’ He pointed to a gap between two tool boards.
They’d spent a few happy weekends making the cabinet. With infinite patience, her father had taught her how to accurately measure timber and mitre corners and the art of a bevel edge. For a time, she’d taken great delight in polishing the glass and dusting the trophies. When puberty hit, she’d lost interest in carpentry, the trophies and hanging out in her father’s shed.
The memory faded, pushed out by Sarah’s sudden realisation that it had been decades since she last thought about that special time with her father. What had happened to the cabinet and its contents?
Gus placed the buttered fruit toast and a cup of tea on the table before pulling out a chair for her with a flourish. ‘Here you go, Mum.’
Gus’s timing was terrible. The clock was ticking down fast and she still needed to peel potatoes, make a berry sauce and set the table before the family arrived. Overriding the urge to keep working while she ate, Sarah made herself sit down and appreciate his efforts. She picked up the warm, fragrant toast and remembered that Alex’s arrival had interrupted their previous conversation. ‘Gus, what were you telling me when I had my head in the fridge?’
But Gus was asking his father about his average speed up the mountain on the morning’s ride. Alex held his bike computer in his palm and they bent over the device—one chestnut head and one jet black sexily streaked with grey—studying the numbers. Sarah smiled. Boys and their toys.
Her mobile rang.
‘Happy Mother’s Day.’
‘Finn!’ Her heart rolled and she grinned at the sound of her eldest child’s voice. She still remembered the moment the midwife laid baby Finn in her arms and the rush of love thundering through her with such overwhelming intensity it would have buckled her legs if she’d been standing. Eighteen years later, her baby was doing his first semester at Melbourne University and studying agriculture. By stalking Facebook, Sarah had gleaned that more partying took place than studying. ‘You remembered. Thank you.’
‘Of course, I remembered,’ he said smugly. ‘I even sent a card.’
‘Did you?’ She’d cleared the post office box the day before. ‘It hasn’t arrived yet.’
‘Oh, I only posted it last night,’ he said easily. ‘Appreciate the effort, Mother dearest. Cards are so old school. Everyone laughed at me when I said we had to walk past a letterbox on the way to the party. All my mates are messaging or Snapchatting their mothers.’
She laughed. ‘In that case, I’m honoured. Thank you very much. I’ll enjoy reading it when I get it.’
‘I didn’t say I wrote anything,’ Finn teased. Voices in the background called his name. ‘I gotta go, Mum. Love ya.’
His duty done, the line went dead and disappointment socked her. She’d wanted to ask Finn about his lectures, about college and if he’d got the results back on the essay he’d been struggling to finish. Alex laughed at something Gus said and a shot of anger—white and hot— flashed behind her eyes. It’s supposed to be my day. My breakfast at least.
‘Alex, get in the shower,’ she said more snappishly than she intended. ‘Everyone’s arriving at twelve and I need your help. And Gus, start peeling those potatoes.’
Resignation slumped Gus’s shoulders but he walked to the island bench without a word.
Alex’s eyes flashed the colour of burned butter. ‘I’m not one of the kids, Sarah.’
But you’ve just spent two hours playing. ‘No. Sorry.’ She wasn’t sorry—she only said it because she didn’t have time to argue right now. ‘I’d really appreciate it if you could take a shower and set up the ping-pong table for Noah.’
‘Maybe. She said she was, but you know Ellie. It’s anyone’s guess if she actually turns up. I really don’t understand why she finds making a decision and sticking to it so difficult.’ Her younger sister was a mystery to Sarah.
Alex gave his only-child shrug, the one he’d perfected over the years. He brought it out as a silent comment on her family, but it spoke very loudly. As much as the shrug annoyed her, Sarah was often secretly jealous of Alex’s only-child status and the fact he was blessed with largely uninterested parents. Alex didn’t have to spend his Father’s Day cooking for Ray.
Miaow! For goodness’ sake, what was wrong with her today? It wasn’t like she’d never hosted Mother’s Day before. This was the eighteenth time, although it was the first occasion all her siblings would be together since—God! When was the last time they’d all been under the same roof on Mother’s Day?
She sipped her tea, reassuring herself that Anita would arrive early to help. They’d open champagne and be quietly buzzed before Margaret strode through the front door in a cloud of perfume and took centre stage. Before Cameron and Ellie got around to sparring. Before Ava threw a tantrum because Chloe and Noah were ignoring her. She quickly reminded herself that these were just blips on what would be a happy day.
Sarah loved her mother and when it was just the two of them together, she enjoyed her company and her wit. No one told a story about the foibles of Mingunyah’s residents better than Margaret. Although she was spry at seventy-six, Sarah was conscious that her mother moved a little more slowly these days and arthritis made fine-motor movements tricky. Over the last three years, Sarah had developed a habit of dropping in to Mill House each weekday for a quick hello. Her mother usually had a job waiting for her. This suited Sarah as she didn’t want her mother climbing ladders, changing light bulbs and risking breaking her hip. Although her mother didn’t make a fuss of thanking her—that had never been Margaret’s way—Sarah knew she appreciated her care and concern. But on days like today, when the family gathered en masse, Margaret leaned into the role of the matriarch with gusto, and Sarah found that champagne always helped.
Alex’s mobile rang. ‘Phil,’ he said in what everyone in the family recognised as his boss voice.
Sarah and Gus stopped what they were doing and looked at him. That voice on a Sunday never boded well.
‘Shit. When? Have you …?’ Alex was listening intently and nodding. ‘I’ll be right over.’ His face was grim as he cut the call but his eyes lit up with the excitement of a challenge. It was the same light that had twinkled in his eyes the night he’d proposed to her.
‘There’s a problem at dairy two’s processing plant. If we don’t get it fixed, we’ll lose a day’s production.’
‘Dairy two?’ Sarah’s stomach lurched. ‘That’s the shipment for Beijing. The truck’s got to leave for Melbourne by three tomorrow to make the plane.’
‘We could draw off dairy three to fill the order. It would mean telling Coles we’ll be short this week but—’
Alex nodded. ‘It’s a good back-up plan but let’s just wait and see. I might be able to fix it.’ His experience as a mechanical engineer often saved them. ‘It probably means I’m going to miss lunch.’
Sarah wished he’d try harder to look disappointed. ‘Remember to ring your mother,’ she called as he departed for the shower. ‘I better ring mine,’ she said absently to Gus, picking up the phone.
‘Why? Gran will be here in two hours.’
‘You know she likes a sense of occasion. She likes to be called on her birthday, Christmas and Mother’s Day even if I’m seeing her later in the day. While I’m talking to her, I’ll ask her about the football photos.’
‘You’re not going to get like Gran when you’re old, are you?’
She waved Gus quiet as her mother answered. ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ Sarah chirped in a sing-song voice.
‘Who’s speaking?’ Margaret asked cantankerously.
Sarah tried not to sigh at this game that had started in her childhood when Margaret insisted the first thing they ever said on the phone was their name. ‘It’s Sarah.’
‘Sarah? What are you doing at the police station?’
‘I’m not at the police station, Mum. I’m calling you from Riverbend.’
‘Someone’s stolen my car.’
‘From the garage?’ Horror streaked through Sarah at the brazen theft. That sort of thing didn’t happen in Mingunyah. ‘How? When?’
‘If I knew that, it wouldn’t be stolen, would it?’
‘Have you rung the police?’
‘No,’ her mother said imperiously, as if Sarah was a little bit slow. ‘I was trying to call the police when you rang. Now you’re tying up the line.’
I called to wish you happy Mother’s Day! Sarah reminded herself that her mother was stressed, which was why she sounded rude. ‘Do you want me to come over?’ Hello? Bad idea. You’ve got ten people coming for lunch. ‘Actually, Mum,’ she hastily amended, ‘I’ve got a better idea. Call Cameron. He can drive you to the police station then bring you here for lunch.’
‘I can’t ask him to do that. Your brother’s a very busy man.’
And I’m a very busy woman. Sarah drew in a long breath and blew it out slowly, because she was never going to win that competition. ‘It’s Sunday, Mum. It’s Mother’s Day. I’m sure Cameron’s got the time and he’ll be happy to help.’
At least one of those statements was correct.
* * *
Anita was propped up on pillows and balancing a tray on her knees as her two youngest daughters bounced on the bed.
‘Do you like the flower, Mummy?’ Ava asked. ‘I chose it.’
‘Open your present, Mummy,’ Chloe demanded. ‘I chose it.’
Ava put her hands on her hips. ‘I chose the present.’
‘You both chose the present,’ Cameron said, lifting his eyebrows in a ‘here we go again’ tilt. ‘And I cooked the pancakes.’
‘Open your present,’ the girls chorused.
‘She’ll open it after she’s eaten breakfast. Come on, shoo. Leave Mummy to eat her breakfast in peace.’
Ava pouted. ‘Aw, but I want her to open it now.’
Cameron clapped his hands and the noise echoed around the room like a gunshot. ‘Kitchen. Now. Or you won’t get to see her open her present at all.’
Surprisingly, the girls obeyed, running from the room.
Anita sighed as she took in the slightly charred pancakes and the rapidly cooling coffee. She didn’t even want to think about the state of her kitchen. ‘I’m sure I need a champagne and orange.’
‘Plenty of time for that,’ Cameron said, giving her a kiss. ‘We don’t want the girls telling the family you were on the slops at breakfast.’
‘It’s Mother’s Day. Sarah will approve.’
He flashed her a look. ‘Mum won’t.’
Anita wasn’t certain Margaret approved of her, full stop. She’d been part of Cameron’s life for fifteen years now and there were still moments when her mother-in-law’s grey eyes took on a decidedly steely hue. Naively, Anita thought that giving Margaret four grandchildren would have helped things along, but apparently the lack of a grandson was a mark against her. That riled, given that gender determination was solely Cameron’s domain. Still, ever since they’d moved to Mingunyah, Cameron was intent on not upsetting his mother. As Margaret had generously paid for Phoebe’s full-size cello and they were hoping she’d buy Ruby’s new dressage saddle, Anita didn’t wish to upset her either.
‘It’s a shame we’re not hosting Mother’s Day this year,’ Cameron said as he stole a piece of pancake from her plate.
His mild censure prickled. ‘We’ve been through this. I was leading up to offering and suddenly Sarah had it all organised.’ If Anita were honest, it was a relief to have a weekend off. For months she’d spent almost every weekend helping Cameron establish Prestige Country Properties by cooking and hosting lunches and dinners for clients he wanted to schmooze and impress. ‘I’ll tell Sarah today that she’s off the hook for next year and we’ll host.’
‘Good. By the way, what am I giving Mum for Mother’s Day?’
Anita pointed to a pretty gift bag on her dressing table. ‘Her favourite perfume and a silver-framed photo of you and the girls on the beach at Mallacoota this summer.’
‘I thought so. I’ve wrapped both boxes. All you need to do is sign the card.’
‘What would I do without you?’ He leaned in and kissed her on the lips. ‘Hmm. Maple syrup.’ His grey eyes twinkled. ‘Shame the girls are home.’
‘Not all of them.’ Sadness fluttered over Anita like a cape. This was her first Mother’s Day without all her daughters at home.
‘The older girls are loving school, Annie,’ Cameron said with resigned weariness. ‘It was the right decision.’
Anita wanted to agree with him but a tiny part of her held back. She was the product of a poverty-stricken high school in the far-flung northern suburbs of Melbourne. Not once had she entertained the thought of her daughters attending boarding school but then again, she’d never anticipated Cameron’s push to move the family back to his childhood town either. Although, unlike her childhood, his had been happy. It was the death of his father that changed the course of his adult life and tainted his love of the town to the point he didn’t even mention Mingunyah early in their relationship.
It took until their four-month dating anniversary before Cameron casually mentioned growing up in the country. The news stunned Anita because Cameron oozed urbane smoothness and nothing about him said country roots. She’d assumed he’d grown up feeling out of place and run from Mingunyah—like she’d run from Coolaroo—the first chance he got and never looked back. It was only after they’d announced their engagement that he finally took her to meet his mother and elder sister. That weekend challenged every idea Anita held about country people.
It was a jolt to realise that, unlike her, Cameron didn’t leave home and reinvent himself, he’d just left home. The second bombshell exploded after a very formal family dinner party, where Anita needed to closely observe which fork was used for which course before picking up her own. After Cameron drank one glass of whiskey too many, they retired to the guest room, where he’d paced back and forth before kicking a chair and growling, ‘The family business was stolen from me.’ The bitterness in his tone gripped her like the bruising press of fingers against her throat. Rattled and wanting to help, she’d asked what had happened but instead of telling her, he’d drained the cut-crystal glass of its expensive amber fluid, and given her a dark, grim smile.
‘Water under the bridge.’ He’d patted the mattress of the four-poster bed and grinned at her sloppily. ‘Now, wife-to-be, come and make me feel better.’
They’d fallen into a pattern of only visiting Mingunyah at Christmas, Easter and on their way to and from the ski fields until four years earlier, when the seeds of change were unwittingly sown: the big girls became horse mad. Sarah suggested they join the Mingunyah pony club and ride with their cousin, Emma. She’d also recommended a trusted horse broker. The girls were ecstatic. Cameron not at all.
‘Jesus! My sister’s unbelievable. She might have money to burn but we don’t. Do you have any idea how much it costs to keep two horses? Forget hay. We’ll just feed them hundred-dollar bills.’
Anita, who considered Sarah to be the sister she’d never had, immediately defended her. ‘Sarah knows the girls love riding. She just wants to help.’
‘Help?’ Cameron snorted. ‘If she wants to help, she can buy the bloody horses.’
Eventually worn down by Ruby and Phoebe’s incessant campaign to join the pony club, Cameron begrudgingly accepted Sarah’s offer of free agistment at Riverbend.
Visits to Mingunyah increased. Anita preferred staying with Sarah, where the older cousins entertained the little girls and she got a rest, but Cameron insisted on staying with his mother: ‘There’s more room at Mill House.’
Yes, but there’s Margaret. Staying with her mother-in-law didn’t come close to relaxing.
Despite the increased frequency of visits to Mingunyah, Cameron always arrived back at their Glen Iris home saying expansively, ‘You gotta love the smell of the city after all that fresh air and horse shit.’
So, on a seemingly ordinary Thursday evening when Cameron dropped his briefcase at the door, tugged at his tie and slumped onto a chair, his life-changing words were a bolt from the blue.
‘I’m sick to death of Melbourne. The traffic’s a nightmare. The pollution’s giving me headaches and the noise never bloody stops.’
Suddenly Cameron was waxing lyrical about waking up to the sounds of bellbirds and the bush. He was sick of ‘working his arse off’ for other people. He craved a challenge.
Worried, Anita bought a book titled Navigating the Male Midlife Crisis. The prologue alone terrified her and she didn’t read any further, telling herself that Cameron was nothing like the self-absorbed men described in the first ten pages. She quickly gifted the book to a friend and it was a relief to banish it from the house.
Three months later, Cameron announced, ‘Mum’s not getting any younger. It would be nice for her if we were closer. Nicer for the girls too.’
This was both a surprising and dubious point. Margaret lost interest in the girls soon after they dutifully kissed her hello and she’d admired or criticised their outfits. The older girls garnered more attention because Phoebe played the cello beautifully and Ruby had a ‘perfect seat’, which continued to win her a clutch of eventing ribbons. Margaret showed scant interest in the little girls unless she was saying, ‘Be quiet’, or telling them a story about her glory days.
Unease pitched her stomach. ‘When you say closer …’
‘I want us to move to Mingunyah.’
But we’ve just finished renovating the house. The first house she’d ever considered a home. With a shaking hand, she poured him a drink. ‘The big girls are teenagers. It’s a tricky age to change schools and we’ll never find a cello teacher the calibre of—’
‘They don’t need to change schools. They can board.’ His eyes glittered with enthusiasm. ‘It’s an investment in their education and, equally important, in the school network. Since the girls started there, I’ve sold six significant properties and all those commissions came through the parent network.’ Excitement vibrated off him and he leaned in close. ‘All those games of golf I’ve played, all your ladies’ lunches, sets of tennis, your cooking classes, not to mention the cocktail and dinner parties we’ve thrown, have paid off.
‘Adam and Liane Doherty have just bought Clearwater out on the old Mingunyah Track. Where the Dohertys go, the McKenzies follow. When Ricky Taranto and Sunny Chen got wind of their interest, both asked me about listings in the district. Believe me, once those two stake a claim in the valley, the floodgates will open. Soon anyone worth knowing will have a place there. It’s the perfect time to go out on my own.’
His confidence rattled her deep-seated need for security, but the reality was, her security was tied unalterably to Cameron. He’d plucked her from a grimy and vulnerable lifestyle, showered her with love and surrounded her with the sort of financial comfort she’d only ever dreamed about. Although his comfort level with debt was greater than hers, she trusted him implicitly. ‘If you think it’s the best way forward …’
‘Hell yes!’ He slapped his thigh. ‘Mingunyah’s finally taking off and we need to be part of it. Look at Alex and Sarah. They’re raking it in. That fucking cheese of theirs is a licence to print money. Even their sourdough bread that was just something they did for cheese tastings has its own identity. Christ! It’s on the menu of every restaurant and café within two hundred K.’ He drained his shiraz. ‘We deserve this opportunity, baby girl. We’re owed it.’
So they’d moved to Mingunyah. It had thrown her life into disarray for months.
Margaret was ecstatic to have Cameron close again. The little girls transitioned to Mingunyah Primary without a skipping a beat and the big girls loved boarding at St Cuthbert’s. As the parents of boarders, Cameron and Anita met a lot of expat and international parents at school functions. Apparently, Australians living in the crowded cities of Asia waxed lyrical about their homeland’s wide open spaces and Asians wanted to diversify their investments. Both groups had the disposable income to buy a plot of eucalyptus-scented paradise. As Cameron kept saying, ‘It’s win-win, baby girl.’
Not quite. Anita missed her elder daughters more then she let on and she pined for her lost in-home cooking business.
The unexpected treat of the move was her closer friendship with Sarah. Her sister-in-law went out of her way to introduce Anita to people as well as welcoming her into her book group. It was an eclectic group of strong-minded women and more than once, Anita had felt out of her depth intellectually and spiritually. She was, however, always the best dressed. That was something she didn’t understand about Sarah. If Cameron was to be believed, and Anita had no reason to doubt him, Sarah and Alex were falling off their wallets, yet Sarah often looked as if she was wearing her gardening clothes. If Anita had Sarah’s disposable income, she’d never bargain hunt for designer clothes and shoes again.
The phone rang. ‘The girls!’ She almost upended the breakfast tray in her eagerness to answer it.
‘I doubt it,’ Cameron said. ‘They always call on your mobile.’
‘Hello,’ she said breathlessly, ignoring her husband’s authoritative tone.
‘Oh. It’s you.’ Margaret’s haughty disappointment hit like a bucket of icy water.
‘Happy Mother’s Day, Margaret,’ Anita said with forced brightness, remembering the cello and the anticipated saddle.
‘I want to talk to Cameron.’
And happy Mother’s Day to you too, Anita. ‘Of course. I’ll pass you over.’ She thrust the phone at Cameron and whispered, ‘Your mother.’
‘Mum,’ Cameron said jovially. ‘I was just about to ring you. Happy Mother’s Day.’
As Anita took a sip of her coffee and tried not to wince at the bitter taste, she watched Cameron frown. She wondered what Margaret was saying.
‘Surely Sarah—’ He lifted the phone from his ear and Anita heard her mother-in-law’s usually well-modulated voice hit an unintelligible screech. ‘I can hear you’re upset, Mum. Yes, Sarah should have—’ He sighed. ‘I understand. Yes, of course. No, it’s no problem.’ He pressed the off button and threw the handset onto the bed. ‘Shit.’
‘Mum reckons her car’s been stolen.’
‘God. That’s awful.’
‘Yeah. And apparently, Sarah wasn’t very sympathetic. Now Mum’s in a state.’
‘To be fair, Sarah’s hosting lunch,’ Anita said, setting aside the tray and throwing back the covers.
‘Yeah, well it means I have to go over and sort out the mess. Hell, it will probably take all morning and I’d planned to—’ He threw her a doleful look. ‘Sorry. I won’t have time to clean up the kitchen. The girls will help.’
If he was suggesting their five-and seven-year-old daughters help, then she knew the kitchen was a disaster. ‘There’s pancake batter on the floor, isn’t there?’
He leaned down and kissed her on the mouth. ‘Love you.’
Oh yeah. Happy Mother’s Day, Anita.
* * *
Ellie breathed a sigh of relief as the car thudded over the first cattle grid, heralding their arrival at Riverbend. The car was making a knocking noise and despite a lack of flashing warning lights, she wasn’t totally convinced the engine wouldn’t suddenly seize. Today was not the day to break down, not that any day was good for that sort of inconvenience. But Sarah was still pissy with her for not coming to their mother’s birthday two months ago and, going by the regular reminder texts her elder sister had started sending at noon the day before, not even death was an acceptable excuse for missing this year’s Mother’s Day lunch.
You know how Mum loves it when we’re all under the same roof.
When that text arrived, Ellie was very tempted to type back, Does she though? But she didn’t want to have that particular conversation so she went with the less controversial, I’ll try to be there.
Sarah’s reply had been instantaneous. Noah always enjoys being with his cousins.
Ellie had nothing she could use to dispute that. Noah adored his older cousins with the sort of hero worship narcissists dreamed about and he loved playing with Ava and Chloe. The problem for Ellie was that no matter how great Noah’s enjoyment, it wasn’t enough to offset the discomfort she experienced whenever she was in the bosom of her family. Like a bad case of hives, there was little she could do to reduce her reaction to her mother and siblings, so, in the way of anyone with allergic tendencies, she avoided the irritants as much as possible. When she had no choice but to be in the presence of her family, she used alcohol instead of antihistamines.
With Cameron’s return to Mingunyah, the family-gathering goal posts seemed to have shifted. Over the last year, invitations had increased exponentially, which put her in a tricky situation. After all, there were only so many excuses a girl could use to refuse to attend.
‘Yay!’ Noah cheered from the back seat as the thud-thud-thud of tyres on iron bars stopped and the crunch of rubber on gravel took its place. ‘We’re here. That took forever.’
‘Hardly,’ Ellie said, smiling at him through the rear-view mirror. But then again, her seven-year-old found sitting still a challenge. His little body constantly vibrated with energy, wriggling and writhing in anticipation, and his tight black curls—so at odds with his almond-shaped eyes—bounced wildly. She wished her enthusiasm for the day was a tenth of his.
In the years before Noah, when she was living and working in Thailand, the Land of Smiles offered up the perfect excuse for her not to attend family functions: distance. Ellie held fond memories of that time and they weren’t restricted to living in a tropical climate among a mostly Buddhist population. Ellie wasn’t naive enough to believe that anything stays the same forever and she was intimate with the fact that life changed whether you wanted it to or not. And eight years ago, her pregnancy had raised more than one dilemma for her. Although living away from Australia gave her freedom from family, she wasn’t a natural risk-taker and it made sense to err on the side of caution. So she’d returned to Australia to give birth in a midwife-run birth centre with a world-class hospital across the hall. It had seemed a safer bet than having a baby in rural Thailand, close to the border with Myanmar.
She and Noah settled in Sydney, although that decision had little to do with the magnificent harbour or the pulsing nightlife, and more to do with it being the first city the plane touched on Australian soil. That and it wasn’t Victoria. Sydney, however, had proved to be an expensive city for a single woman with a child and despite sharing the cost of housing with others, Ellie reached a point where she could no longer ignore the fact her bank balance spent more time going backwards than forward. Being unable to afford all the things the city offered those with a medium to large disposable income threw up the stark and unrelenting question: what’s the point of living here?
The year before Noah commenced school, Ellie started looking for a job in rural New South Wales. The limited choice of jobs quickly dictated she widen her search and, still determined to avoid Victoria, she’d looked at South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia. As she’d scrolled past an advertisement with a logo of a house sketched with a heart in the place of a window, eleven words snagged her gaze: Valley View Neighbourhood House seeks mentor for recently arrived Burmese community.
Surely it was a different Valley View from the town thirty minutes down the road from Mingunyah? The two towns were so similar they were hard to tell apart, but it was unwise to mention that to a local. Mingunyah deplored Valley View for its underhand tactics in securing the shire offices a hundred and fifty years ago and Valley View hated that the only high school in the district was in Mingunyah. The rivalry always spilled over at the footy, where blood was invariably shed on the oval and then again post match, when girlfriends and wives were seduced by opposing sides.
When Ellie was growing up, one of the most cosmopolitan things in a mainly Anglo Saxon town was the espresso machine Gino Cilauro’s grandfather had imported in 1965 for the then equally eccentric and worryingly foreign pizza-pie shop. By the time Ellie was thirteen and spending school-holiday nights at Tony’s, they’d dropped ‘pie’ from the name but there was still a hint of the word in the shadow on the old sign. The second cosmopolitan thing to hit town was the black-market trade of homemade dips Con Papadopoulos sold from his greengrocer’s shop. Not many of the meat-and-potato-trained palates welcomed the eggplant, yoghurt and garlic combinations but she’d adored the strong flavours scooped onto pita bread. Her mother had been less enthusiastic: ‘No boy is ever going to kiss you after eating that!’
Ellie had thought this a good thing and enthusiastically shovelled more dip into her mouth.
On closer reading of the job advertisement, it became clear the town was her Valley View. Her mind boggled that Burmese refugees now lived there.
If her pregnancy had been a fork in the road of her life, so was this job. When she combined her experience in Thailand with growing up in Mingunyah, the position was tailor-made for her. There was just one significant drawback—Valley View’s proximity to Mingunyah. Ellie had tried to walk away from the siren call of the job, but it became impossible. The scope of it was something she could sink her teeth into and really make a difference. She applied, rationalising that it was pointless to worry about being so close to Mingunyah when her application may not even be considered. The board offered her the job at the end of a video-link interview.
After a sleepless night and as the early dawn light splashed against a hazy city sky, she conceded that staying away from Mingunyah was in her and Noah’s worst interests. So they moved into a share house on the eastern edge of Valley View, primarily because Mingunyah lay to the west. A day after she unpacked the last box, she telephoned her mother.
‘I suppose you think you can just move back into your old room.’
Not even if I was destitute. ‘We’re living in the old Guthrie place on the outskirts of Valley View.’
‘Why on earth do you have to live in a commune?’
Ellie chose to laugh; it was that or say something that would inevitably cause Sarah to telephone and berate her.
‘Actually, Mum, it’s more of a collective.’
Really, it was just four women sharing a rambling old weatherboard farmhouse. Wendy, a yoga instructor and home healthcare worker, liked to decorate the front veranda with Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags to detract from the peeling paintwork. Rachel, the high school art teacher, extended her art to include the hanging of thirty teapots from the branches of the fragrant peppercorn tree by the gate; it meant visitors found the house far more easily than peering for the RMB number. Grace, whose paid job was in town planning at the shire offices, worked hard at resurrecting the old orchard, coaxing cherries, apples, quinces and almonds from the lichen-covered trees, as well as planting an enormous vegetable garden. She’d knocked together a stall out of old crates and palings and sold produce at the farm gate, mostly on an honesty system. Noah and Wendy’s daughter, Bree, loved helping Grace in the garden. They also manned the stall on the weekends until they got bored, which was generally after about fifteen minutes. Ellie ran chooks and her border collie, Splotch, rounded them up, along with the two sheep that kept the grass under control.
It was hard to believe two years had passed since they’d moved in.
Ellie swivelled in the driver’s seat and faced her son. ‘You ready to open some gates for me?’
‘Yeah! Gus showed me how.’ Noah unbuckled his seat belt. ‘I have to close them too, Mum. Uncle Alex will go mental if the goats escape.’
He sounded just like his cousin and Ellie thought of her brother-in-law. Alex wasn’t really the type to ‘go mental’ but then again, she’d never let any of his prize stock wander onto the highway. It sounded like Gus may have and, as a result, learned that his usually reasonable father had his limits—limits that stretched a lot further than his mother’s.
Noah’s hand reached for the door handle.
‘Sit!’ she yelled and Splotch, who was sitting quietly on the seat, gave her a doleful look. ‘You know the rules. You stay sitting until the car stops. Then you can open the door.’
‘Yeah. But, it’s almost stopped.’
‘And if you fall out you’ll be stopped forever,’ she said, trying not to shudder. ‘If you want to open and shut the gates, you follow the rules. Otherwise you’ll be inside the car watching me do it.’
Noah grimaced as if he wanted to argue the unfairness of the conditions but he sat back. She stopped the car a few metres from the gate and pulled on the handbrake.
‘Now, Mum? Please.’
She glanced down the track, saw a plume of dust and a vehicle barrelling towards them. ‘Okay, but don’t open it until the other car’s stopped.’
Noah was out the door in an instant, his running feet somewhat impeded by the slurping grip of muddy ground. He climbed onto the gate and gave her a wave while he waited.
A slither of guilt wound through her. Noah loved Riverbend and often asked to visit, but as much as Ellie wanted to acquiesce, she could never fully shake off the feeling that Sarah felt awkward and uncomfortable in her presence. Every time Ellie convinced herself she was imagining it, Sarah said or did something ambiguous that brought the feeling rushing back. Ellie had no such confusion with Cameron—he openly disapproved of her and her life choices. So much for the theory that the youngest child was always indulged, never judged and always forgiven by fond elder siblings. Then again, the Jamieson family had always done things differently.
As the on-coming vehicle came closer, she made out two distinctive white cylinders extending over the roof of the cab. Tradie’s ute. Surprise tangled with the financial implications. Calling out a tradie on a Sunday wasn’t going to be cheap. Ellie wondered what had happened to precipitate it.
The vehicle slowed then stopped and Noah waved enthusiastically at the driver.
A broad-shouldered man of medium height got out of the ute, his hat casting a shadow over his features. The constant low buzz of anxiety that lived inside Ellie—the high-alert warning that was all about Noah’s safety—kicked up a notch. She pushed open the door, swung her boot-clad feet onto the damp track and strode for the gate.
‘G’day, mate.’ She heard the driver’s voice before she reached Noah. ‘Do you need a hand?’
‘I can do it,’ Noah called out. ‘I know how.’
‘Good on ya.’ The tone was laconic and wry. ‘I could have done with your help a couple of hours ago.’
‘I’ll close it too,’ Noah added proudly. Her son was generally keen to help but just lately she’d noticed he was particularly eager to help men.
Ellie reached the gate and gripped the top turn, positioning herself between Noah and the unknown man. Keeping her head down, she kept walking, taking the gate with her.
‘Mum!’ Noah’s furious objection laced the word. ‘You said you’d stay in the car.’
Glancing around, she eyed a grassy tussock with deep grooves created by the pressure of the bottom of the gate. She kicked it. ‘I thought it might get stuck on this.’
Noah shot her a sceptical look as the tradie said, ‘Eleanor?’
The surprise and pleasure in the man’s voice stilled her. Noah took the chance to gleefully push the gate to the full extent of its hinges.
The man wore filthy jeans and a navy blue polar fleece that featured an embroidered logo on the left side of his chest. It was a clever design of two similar shapes—the right side was an orange flame and the left a blue water droplet—and was ringed by the words, ‘Mingunyah Plumbing Heating & Cooling Specialists’. As Ellie stared at him blankly, he pulled off his battered hat. Muddy blond hair that badly needed a cut fell across a high forehead and dark lashes ringed bright blue eyes that squinted into the noon sun. Eyes that were studying her.
Sweat pooled under her arms as he scrutinised her. It had been a long time since a man had looked at her like that, which was exactly how she liked it. The urge to grab Noah’s hand and run back to the car engulfed her as fast as the flames of a bushfire.
‘Ellie Jamieson, right?’
Before she’d decided if she was going to admit to being herself, Noah said, ‘That’s my mum’s name. I’m Noah.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Noah. I’m Luke.’ Deep lines arrowed around his smiling mouth and eyes—lines that spoke of a life lived outdoors—and he stuck out his hand to Ellie. ‘Luke Sorenson. Mingunyah Primary.’ She must have looked baffled because he added quickly, ‘We had Mrs Pye in Grade Six. She made us run the perimeter of the playground every morning.’
Ellie had a sudden flash of a boy with white-blond hair racing past her before turning, running backwards and taunting her that she ran like a girl. She’d beaten him enough times to keep things competitive. A laugh bubbled up at the memory; a laugh that surprised her.
‘Do you still run backwards, Luke?’
He gave a self-deprecating shrug. ‘I’m a boundary umpire. What about you?’
‘She chases me,’ Noah said. ‘She can’t catch me, but.’
‘You look pretty fast,’ Luke said in the easy manner of someone familiar with children. He turned back to Ellie. ‘The school had its hundred and fiftieth a couple of years back. Mrs Pye came and a dozen of us did the run for her. Didn’t see you there.’
He rubbed his stubbled jaw thoughtfully. ‘Didn’t you head off to some swanky Melbourne boarding school?’
‘Scholarship,’ she lied with perfected ease. It was so much easier than the truth.
‘You back for a visit then?’
‘It’s Mother’s Day,’ Noah chipped in. ‘Sarah told Mum we had to come cos it’s Gran’s special day and she deserves it but Mum said it’s her special day too and—’
‘Noah! That’s enough.’ Ellie hastily cut off her son before he quoted her less than optimal opinion about today’s lunch to this virtual stranger. It was a quote from a rant she’d made to Wendy when she’d been certain Noah was watching television, but apparently not. ‘Mr Sorenson isn’t interested in that.’ Except going on the glint in Luke’s oddly hypnotic blue eyes, he looked far too interested. ‘He needs to get back to his family for Mother’s Day and you need to close the gate after him.’
Luke’s gaze rested on Ellie and she realised it still held the same teasing playfulness it had all those years ago. Back then it made her squirm with a feeling that lurched between delight and determination. Now it just made her squirm with unease. She deliberately looked over his left shoulder. ‘We’re late.’
‘And I need more supplies for the job.’ Luke jammed his hat onto his head. ‘Noah, don’t move, mate. I want to see you when I drive through the gate. Good to see you again, Ellie.’ He walked to the ute without glancing back.
As Ellie trudged to her car, she felt her shoulders fall from up round her ears. She hadn’t been aware that they’d risen.
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