The scent of the rainforest—leaf mulch, mud and a spritz of eucalyptus—prickled Claire’s nostrils. A fine mist settled over her, the chill sneaking around the tops of her woollen socks and skating along her bones. Beside her, Matt pulled his hat down low before crossing his arms and shoving his hands under his armpits. The familiar oily smell of wool and dubbin rose off his coat, curling into the earthy perfume that said home. Sanctuary. Safety.
The reassuring aroma of Myrtle in winter.
It was very different from the summer smells of choking heat, dry dust and cow dung. Claire shivered, a combination of the insidious chill and sheer relief. Once she’d hated winter in Myrtle and had complained bitterly about the sun that crawled far too slowly to its zenith. Even when it finally reached its highest point, the weak light barely penetrated the canopy of the tall, straight mountain ash. Now she welcomed winter and the accompanying wet. It was harder to accept the rolling mountain fog that encased Myrtle in an asthma-inducing blanket, stealing the view down to the Southern Ocean. The low cloud dug up memories of another day when Myrtle was cloaked by impenetrable grey and isolated from the coast on one side and the flat plains on the other, where smoke smelled like fear, burnt flesh and cataclysmic change. A day no one wanted to remember. A day no one could forget.
A day that left a livid and jagged scar on the small township cocooned by the thick forest of Victoria’s Otway Ranges.
She stamped her feet, trying to keep warm, and willing the proceedings to commence so they could all rush inside to hot tea.
Phil Lang stepped forward to the edge of the veranda, his moleskin-clad legs, blue-and-white check shirt and puffer vest marking him as a local and distinguishing him from the mob of Melbourne dignitaries—male and female—all wearing black suits. He tapped the microphone. ‘Testing, testing.’
Claire flinched at the squeal of feedback reverberating through the speaker.
Matt slid an arm across her shoulder. ‘You should be anticipating that by now. What’s this? The fifth opening we’ve been to?’
‘Sixth.’ It was the same as the number of funerals she’d attended in one dreadful week. Of the six, only one had contained a sole casket. At the others, there’d been two, four and five respectively. She’d missed two funerals completely, because they’d run concurrently with others; no one had thought to schedule the funerals to avoid a clash. Back then, thinking was impossible, existing almost too hard.
Claire flicked away a bead of moisture before it plonked into her eye. ‘Why didn’t we bring an umbrella?’
‘Because you love the rain.’ He squeezed her shoulder and smiled, the bold curve of his mouth filling with a special memory.
She allowed herself to tumble back two years to when life had been different—deceptively easy.
A wall of rain fell, pummelling her. Clay sucked at her boots, while her arms pushed high into the air and her head fell back to greet the crying pewter sky. Matt’s arms wrapped around her, holding her close, and his deep, husky laugh warmed her skin.
‘Matt! Feel it. Taste the sweetness.’
‘I’ve missed rain like this. I think I’ve been in the city too long.’
His eyes sparkled like dappled sunshine on the rainforest floor. ‘Stay here then.’
‘Myrtle. The farm. Right here. Marry me. We’ll make a beautiful life and beautiful babies.’
The microphone squealed again, fracturing the memory. Ricky Kantor, Myrtle’s new—and self-appointed—AV guy, checked the cables and scratched his head. ‘Try it now, Phil.’
A Melbourne woman clutching a clipboard said something to Phil before tapping her watch. Adam Petrovic, the local builder, turned from the group of dignitaries and spoke to Phil.
Julie Lang, Claire’s mother’s friend and her honorary aunt, slipped in next to her. ‘We’re three minutes behind already.’
‘That’s on time for Myrtle.’
‘Apparently the Minister has to be in Lorne by noon. You should see the running sheet his PA sent us. It included a request for vanilla slice. I told her that Myrtle specialises in light and fluffy scones and Otway jam and cream.’
‘With any luck, it means he’ll have to cut his speech short,’ Matt said. His body tensed against Claire’s. ‘Why are these things always such a bloody circus? Hell, we’re struggling to field a cricket and footy team, let alone trying to introduce basketball.’
‘That’s now,’ Julie said quietly. ‘This is for the future.’
‘At the rate Myrtle’s population’s going backwards, the joint will be falling down by the time we’ve got enough people to use it. It’s a perfect example of the gap between Spring Street and the bush,’ Matt grumbled. ‘We’ve got people spending a second winter living in freezing caravans and containers. They can’t start building because of the bloody bureaucracy, but the same government’s throwing buildings at us that we don’t want or need.’
Claire wanted to say shh, but she squeezed his hand hard instead. His brows drew down and he shot her a look. She widened her eyes and inclined her head slightly towards Julie.
‘Sorry, Julie. I wasn’t taking a crack at you.’
Julie gave Matt a small smile—half the size of the one she’d have given before the fires. BF, as Claire had taken to calling it. Now was AF—after the fires. One horrific December day that had scorched a demarcation line into their lives. Now everything was measured in BF and AF, from the big-picture things right down to the little things like reaching for your favourite cooking knife or spanner, only to realise it had been destroyed.
‘I know you’re not taking a shot at me, Matt, but the building’s here now,’ Julie said. ‘We need to use it for more than just an evacuation centre.’
Matt’s arm tightened around Claire. ‘Let’s hope it never comes to that again.’
They all knew hope didn’t protect them from a damn thing.
‘Rightio!’ Phil’s voice boomed through the speakers. ‘Let’s make a start. Thanks for coming. Let’s give the Minister a warm Myrtle welcome …’
A scattering of applause broke out. Claire glanced around at the crowd. Despite eighteen months of experience, she couldn’t stop the ache bruising her heart. Again. It was just like the previous five grand openings of the other new and shiny buildings; all she could see was the missing. So many absent faces. Some people chose not to attend these events. For others, that choice didn’t exist.
‘It’s an honour to be in Myrtle today,’ the Minister said. ‘I was here a few days after the fires, stunned and horrified and barely able to comprehend only two buildings remained standing in your pretty town. Today, as I toured around, I’m heartened by how much has been achieved and how quickly. It’s a testament to Myrtle’s spirit, grit and determination.’
‘We still don’t have a pub,’ a bloke called from the back.
The Minister’s laugh was deep, hearty and practised. ‘Sadly, that’s not part of my portfolio, but you do have a state-of-the-art primary school, a Men’s Shed, Country Women’s Association meeting rooms, a community health centre, a playground and now this spectacular multisport indoor stadium. Myrtle is back on top and kicking goals.’
Was it though? All that remained of the stark lunar landscape that the conflagration had created—black ash, black trees, black bricks and blackened, crumpled iron—was the brittle lace of dead trees silhouetted on the ridge overlooking the town. Lifeless sentries gazing down on a carpet of defiant emerald green that wrapped itself around all the new buildings that made Myrtle look bright, modern and optimistic. Claire couldn’t shake the worry that all of it was an illusion—one that could shatter at any moment. Underneath the veneer of Colourbond, river stone and timber, Myrtle’s heart remained charred and barely beating.
If the politician heard any gentle rumblings of dissent about the stadium, he didn’t show it. ‘I know you’re all keen to get inside and check out the facilities so without further ado, I declare the Myrtle Stadium open.’ He cut the ribbon and walked inside. Claire noticed Adam and Bec Petrovic slipping in immediately behind him, before his entourage, and well ahead of the rest of the rebuilding committee. Why didn’t that surprise her?
The rest of the crowd moved and as Matt stood back to allow Julie and Claire to precede him through the double doors, Julie said, ‘Claire, I’m short a few hands. Can you help out with tea and coffee?’
‘Sure. No problem.’
This time it was Matt who squeezed her hand. Guilt flickered, but saying no to Julie wasn’t an option. Julie was like family. Scratch that—Julie was family now and the closest thing Claire had to a mother. Not that she could say that to Matt. If she did, he’d look at her with hurt keen in his chocolate-lashed eyes and she’d experience a familiar tug of anger rising on a platform of shame.
No matter how many times he said, ‘You’ve got my mum,’ Louise Cartwright was very much Matt’s mother—at best, she tolerated Claire’s presence. Although Claire had originally met Louise when she was an eight-year-old Brownie and Louise was Brown Owl, twenty-two years had passed before Matt introduced her to his mother as his girlfriend. That meeting had taken place on an unseasonably frigid late summer’s day when a smattering of snow lightened the dark gullies and ice clung to the wide leaves of the tree ferns. Not much had thawed between the two women since.
As Julie walked purposefully towards the kitchen, Matt said quietly in a steely voice, ‘We had a deal, Claire. Apart from this bloody opening, we’re spending the day together.’
‘And we are.’
He snorted. ‘You just volunteered to pour tea. That’ll kill another hour. Why didn’t you tell her no? It’s our first day off together in months. Hell, you’re not even in the CWA. You’ve always said it’s not your thing and you never wanted to be part of it.’
‘I’m not and I don’t.’ Claire sighed. ‘Matt, it’s just pouring tea.’
‘It’s not though, is it? Someone will ask you to look at a mole or listen to their kid’s chest and you’ll open the clinic and boom, the day’s gone. With you it’s always just something for someone.’ Tension ran up his jaw and she saw the battle he was waging between irritation and understanding. ‘Today, I wanted to be that someone.’
She leaned in and kissed him. ‘You are my someone.’
‘Knock it off you two, it’s only eleven in the morning.’
‘You’re just jealous, mate,’ Matt said with a laugh.
Josh Doherty stood behind them, adjusting his squirming toddler on his hip. ‘Surely you’ve been married long enough now to be sick of each other?’ he quipped.
Claire stilled, momentarily forgetting to breathe.
‘Josh!’ His wife Sophie threw him a dagger-laden look.
The stage whisper spun around the four of them. For a couple of seconds, Josh was as still as Claire had been, his gaze long and straight but vacant. Then he barked a laugh, the sound harsh, abrupt and loud. The child on his hip squealed in frightened surprise. ‘That explains why you’re still all over each other like a rash, then.’ He tousled the tight blonde curls on his daughter’s head. ‘Time you had a passion killer like this one and joined the rest of us poor bastards.’
‘I have tea to pour.’ Claire walked purposefully to the kitchen, shutting out the barrage of thoughts that threatened to intrude and ruin her day. Pulling a CWA apron over her head, she plastered a smile on her face and stepped up to the building queue. ‘Tea or coffee?’ she asked a woman from the Melbourne delegation.
‘Do you have any herbal tea?’
‘I’ve got bergamot.’ She flung a tea bag into a cup and wondered how long it would take the woman to realise it was Earl Grey.
‘Is the Devonshire tea gluten free?’
Claire tried hard not to roll her eyes. ‘The jam and cream are.’
‘Oh. I’m lactose intolerant.’
‘I wouldn’t say that too loudly,’ Claire said conspiratorially.
‘You’re surrounded by dairy farmers.’
The woman stared at the spoon Claire was handing her, nonplussed. ‘What’s this for?’
‘The jam. It’s both gluten and lactose free.’ Before the woman could utter another word, Claire looked at the next person waiting, giving thanks it was a local. ‘Cuppa, Ted?’
‘Thought you’d never ask, love.’
* * *
‘Shh, it’s okay.’ Sophie lifted a crying Trixie out of Josh’s arms. ‘Daddy didn’t mean to scare you.’
Josh’s mouth tightened as he stretched his thumb out towards the tear on Trixie’s cheek. ‘You’re all right, aren’t you, Trix?’
Trixie pouted and buried her face in Sophie’s shoulder.
‘Mummy’s here.’ Sophie hugged their daughter close, soothing her and breathing in her scent of baby soap and dirt. Trixie wailed louder.
‘Jeez, Soph. Now she’s just bunging it on because you’re making a fuss about nothing. She has to get used to noise.’
‘I’m doing what any mother does when her child’s upset. And Trixie’s not the only one upset,’ she said before she could stop herself. ‘Did you see the look on Claire McKenzie’s face?’
‘Christ, Soph. It was a joke,’ Josh muttered. ‘Am I supposed to remember every little detail about everyone? Hell, we hardly know them.’
‘I s’pose not.’ Sophie regretted her unfair comment but each time she saw Claire, she was reminded of the vivid television images that had beamed into her mother’s lounge room on that December afternoon when Myrtle burned. The memory was always accompanied by a wave of nausea and a quiver of anxiety.
Liam tugged at Josh’s jeans. ‘Daddy, I’m hungry.’
‘Let’s get some tucker then.’ Josh caught their four-year-old son’s hand and took a step towards a cloth-covered trestle table groaning under the weight of scones dripping with Myrtle raspberry jam and local cream.
Trixie’s head shot up, all signs of her previous distress gone. She lurched sideways, throwing her arms out. ‘Dadda! Me! Me!’
A stab of irrational hurt caught Sophie under her ribs. ‘You little con artist.’
Josh turned back, the smile on his face reminiscent of the ones he’d showered Sophie with before kids and mortgages. Before the fire. Instead of putting his arms out to Trixie so she could transfer over to him, he unexpectedly slid his spare hand into Sophie’s. ‘Come on. We only came for the food, so let’s all get something to eat.’
Josh filled a couple of paper plates with the bounty and took the children over to the chairs while Sophie lined up for hot drinks. She smiled at Julie Lang. The older woman was her neighbour, and from the moment they’d moved to Myrtle, she’d taken Sophie under her maternal wing. As much as Sophie didn’t like to admit it, Julie was more of a grandmother to the kids than her own mother.
‘Tea for you and coffee for Josh?’ Julie splashed hot water into the mugs. ‘While I’ve got you here, are you a knitter?’
Sophie blinked at the unexpected question. ‘Ah, no. I never learned.’ Sophie’s mother eschewed anything she thought shackled women to the domestic sphere. This included housework, cooking and all craftwork.
‘Is it? I always thought it might be nice to know how.’
‘Excellent.’ Julie smiled. ‘I’m running a class and I’d love you to be there.’
Life pulled at her. ‘I don’t know, Julie. What with everything—’
‘I’ll text you the details.’ Julie pushed the mugs towards Sophie and looked expectantly at the next person in line. ‘What can I get you?’
* * *
Bec Petrovic listened to the Minister telling her what a brave and exceptional man her husband Adam was and smiled. What other possible response was there?
‘Sacrificing his own safety to save those men …’ The Minister shook his head as if he couldn’t fathom Adam’s courage. ‘You must be very proud of him.’
‘Every day. It was a very special moment when he was presented with the Star of Courage, not to mention the afternoon tea at Government House.’ She laughed. ‘It makes today’s offerings look a bit meagre.’
The Minster nodded glumly. ‘I was told there’d be vanilla slice.’
Adam appeared holding a white paper bag, which he handed to the politician. ‘The Nguyens make a mean vanilla slice, so I got someone to nick up to the bakery for you, Andrew. Just don’t let any of the CWA biddies see you with it.’
The man’s eyes lit up. ‘Thank you. You’re the right man to know.’
‘I do my best.’ Adam winked at Bec with his good eye and took her hand. ‘Don’t I, babe?’
She smiled again because she couldn’t fault him on that. Adam threw himself heart and soul into every task he took on. Her thumb automatically moved over the back of his hand. For months it had encountered a pressure bandage, but now it touched thick ridges of scar tissue, the legacy of disfiguring burns.
‘Any news about the eco-tourism centre?’ Adam asked the Minister.
‘You know I can’t pre-empt anything.’
‘What about a nod for yes and a wink for no.’
‘I’ve got the number crunchers working on it. Any chance you can up the private-sector investment?’
Bec’s concentration drifted. ‘Excuse me. I need to check on the girls.’ Leaving quickly, she pushed open a side door and stepped into a room containing a massive trampoline and gymnastics equipment.
‘Mummy! Look!’ Her eight-year-old daughter was jumping and somersaulting, sticking the landing perfectly and immediately repeating the action.
‘That’s great, Gracie. Where’s your sister?’
Bec glanced around despite knowing it would be a miracle if Ivy was on any of the equipment. She caught a flash of red hair and found her elder daughter sitting with her back pressed against a stack of blue gym mats, a book in her hands. Oh, Ivy.
Bec had never been a big reader and since the fires, her consumption of the printed word was reduced to flicking through magazines and glancing at the headlines of the paper. It was the opposite with Ivy, who now read voraciously. Bec had a love– hate relationship with Ivy’s books. Part of her was grateful Ivy had something she loved but mostly Bec resented the books’ intrusion into their lives. Not only did they take her daughter away from her, she was jealous Ivy had a place to escape to when the going got tough.
‘I thought you were playing with your friends.’
‘I was but they’ve gone home now, because they’ve got lives. Why do we have to stay?’
‘Because this opening’s very important to Daddy. He’s worked really—’
‘Hard,’ Ivy said, rolling her eyes and sounding exactly like Bec. ‘I know, but it’s boring. Why do I have to be here? I’m old enough to be at home on my own.’
Bec tried not to sigh. The first year after the fires she’d worried for her daughters and just when she’d relaxed and dared to hope that the girls had survived the trauma thrust so violently upon them, Ivy hit puberty. It brought with it even more minefields to tiptoe through. ‘Have you had something to eat?’
‘But you love scones. Come and have morning tea with me.’ She stretched out her hand and watched her daughter’s internal battle play out in her sky-blue eyes—the girl who wanted to be both grown up and little all at the same time.
Ivy huffed out a dramatic breath and stood up. ‘I s’pose.’
Bec threw her arm across her shoulders. ‘Remember how you used to make playdough scones for me.’
‘Mum! I’m not a little kid any more.’
‘I know.’ It gutted her that the fire had stolen Ivy’s childhood innocence. She blamed the inferno one hundred per cent; it was easier and far more palatable than looking elsewhere. ‘Gracie, do you want something to eat?’
‘I just wanna bounce.’
Bec and Ivy walked back into the main section of the stadium. The crowd had thinned considerably and she couldn’t spot a single black suit, just the puffer-jacket attire of the locals. Her gaze sought out Adam and as soon as she saw him chatting to a couple of Country Fire Authority members, she relaxed. As she shepherded Ivy to the tea table, she anticipated being served by one of Myrtle’s matriarchs who always made a fuss of her and the girls. Instead she got Claire McKenzie—Casual Claire, as Bec had tagged her back in high school. There weren’t many people Bec loathed but there’d always been something about Claire that made her jaw clench.
Growing up, they’d been in Brownies and Girl Guides together. They’d clashed when Bec was patrol leader and Claire had cheerfully ignored all her instructions and done her own thing. Claire had always done her own thing—she still did. Whereas Bec was a joiner and loved nothing more than being part of a group. Before the fires, she’d always been involved with the girls’ activities in some capacity, serving on the kinder committee, friends of dance club and the PFA. Unlike Claire, she enjoyed the company of other women. Recently though, due to Adam’s burns, he’d needed her by his side and her involvement had dropped away.
A ripple of annoyance shot through her. Why on earth was Claire pouring tea? Had she joined the CWA? Bec shrugged the ridiculous thought away. Claire McKenzie was more likely to walk down the main street stark naked than be part of Australia’s biggest women’s group.
‘Hi, Ivy,’ Claire said. She noticed Ivy’s novel. ‘I love that book. It’s a great series.’
‘Yeah, it’s pretty cool.’ Ivy smiled shyly. ‘I’m re-reading it cos the next one’s coming out soon.’
‘It’s exciting, isn’t it? I’ve ordered my copy already and when it arrives, I’m taking the day off to read it.’
Bec wasn’t familiar with the series—she had assumed the book was a kids’ story. The fact that Claire not only recognised it, but had read it, irked her. ‘Two teas, please. Ivy and I are having a mother–daughter tea party.’
She hit the words ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ with added emphasis. Claire might have hooked the son of the district’s most prominent farming family and have her own career, but Bec aced her with marriage and motherhood.
‘Coming right up.’ Claire poured boiling water into a mug. ‘Unless you want a hot chocolate, Ivy?’
‘Oh, yes, please.’ Ivy sounded as if she’d just been offered gold.
Bec’s back teeth locked. ‘And a plate of scones … please.’
‘Oh, you might be lucky. Julie, any food left?’ Claire called over her shoulder.
Julie walked out of the kitchen holding a plate. ‘Lucky last. Here you go, Ivy.’
‘Thanks, Mrs Lang.’ Ivy took her drink and the food over to a table and Bec was about to follow when Julie said, ‘Now the opening’s over, you’ll be pleased to get your husband back.’
‘Oh, you know Adam …’ Bec pressed her hand to her décolletage and fiddled with the neckline of her frock. ‘He’s always got a project on the go.’
‘What about you?’
Everyone in Myrtle knew of Julie Lang, even if they didn’t know her intimately. She was a mover and a shaker and a woman people looked up to. Julie’s daughter had been Bec’s assigned buddy when she started school and her son had been Myrtle Primary’s school captain. As both Lang children were older than Bec they hadn’t been friends and, even before her parents’ divorce, the Sendos certainly hadn’t mixed in the same social circles as the Langs.
Bec always enjoyed chatting with Julie—not that their conversations were deep or meaningful. They usually ran along the lines of pleasantries and the weather, Bec seeking advice on growing azaleas and camellias, and general chit-chat about the children. She would have liked the chance to get to know Julie better but there were scant opportunities when their lives were lived so differently. But now the older woman was looking at Bec as if seeing her for the very first time.
Bec felt a line of heat break across her cheeks. ‘Um, what about me?’
‘Do you have a project?’
Julie gave her a sympathetic smile. ‘The last eighteen months, you’ve devoted your life to Adam and his recovery. But he’s well and truly back at full speed, isn’t he? It’s probably time for you to do something for yourself.’
The statement caught Bec off guard. ‘I … I hadn’t really thought. I mean, he still has difficult days …’
‘We all have difficult days,’ Julie said simply. ‘Adam’s got the business and the CFA as well as you.’
Raucous laughter boomed around the stadium and Bec glanced towards the sound. Her burly husband, beer in hand, was surrounded by a group of men, their heads inclined towards him, listening intently. If she blocked out the pink and puckered skin on his face, she was looking at a very familiar picture. Men had always listened to Adam and the fire hadn’t changed that. If anything, his heroic actions that day had increased their attentiveness.
Adam turned towards her as if he knew she was watching him. He raised his beer in a salute. It was just the sort of thing he’d done before the fires when he was happy and content. She smiled back.
‘I think you’re right, Julie. Perhaps it’s time.’
Reviews Why I Wrote the Book Book Club Questions Return