It was November, three months after the awful day at the park when Olivia’s life as she knew it had been blown apart. She looked around at the mountain of boxes tied with satin ribbons, filled with delicate latte-coloured macarons. Towers of the things teetered on the benches and the dining table, ready for the fundraising bake sale tomorrow at Darcy’s school. It was possible, she observed, that she was channelling her grief into baking. This wasn’t entirely a bad thing, given that she was a pastry chef. How much more complicated her life would be right now if her loss had manifested in an inability to bake. Instead, the windows of her cake shop in the main street of Richmond, Tasmania, were full of tempting treats, the aromas wafting out into the street to entice customers. She’d never been so busy.
Tonight, though, it was time to put the baking trays down. ‘That’ll do, pig,’ she muttered to herself, echoing Farmer Hoggett from the movie Babe. She lifted her apron over her head and turned off the oven, quietening its hum. In the ensuing silence, she could hear her own heartbeat. The kitchen walls seemed to tick down like a cooling car, exhaling with relief after her whirlwind of activity. It was only nine o’clock, hours before she’d be tired enough for her busy mind to rest.
Darcy was asleep. She’d given him some paracetamol for the pain in his leg, and he’d drifted off in her arms. But for her, sleep had become an elusive thing. She was crippled by the silence, the emptiness, the stillness of Ma’s absence. She was lonely, she realised with a shock. Lonely. A horrible word. A pathetic one. Thirty-three was too young to be lonely, surely? Yet Darcy was only six, and he was lonely too. They both missed Ma so much.
From inside her handbag, she retrieved the envelope and plucked out the black-and-white photograph she’d found at the back of a drawer in Ma’s room. The photo must have been taken in England. There was Ma – Eleanora Kent – in a dark, fitted, sleeveless dress that came to just above the knee. It was impossible to tell what colour the dress was – navy blue, perhaps. Or green. She was a young woman, maybe twenty, and the expression on her face was one of secret delight, an expression Olivia was certain she’d never seen in a lifetime of living with her. Her hair was swept up high, and she clasped the handle of her bag with white gloves as she leant against a stone wall, smiling towards the photographer, or maybe someone nearby. On the back of the photo, in Ma’s handwriting, was the year, 1966, the same year she’d come to Australia as a ten-pound Pom with her parents, falling in love with Lawrence on the ship, marrying him as soon as they’d stepped onto shore, and having Olivia’s mother, Laurie, the next year. Sadly, Olivia had never met Ma’s much-loved Lawrence, who’d died not long after their marriage.
Olivia was fascinated by this image of Nora. It was Nora in a whole other world, a world Olivia had never experienced. She moved to the lounge room and flopped onto Ma’s recliner, gazing at the photo. On a whim, she lifted her laptop from the coffee table onto her knees, and typed in Stoneden, Cotswolds. She was rewarded with breathtaking images of green fields and sparkling rivers, swans, stone cottages, gardens of lavender and roses. She skimmed through a site about the village’s history, and then came upon a link to an article in the village’s local paper, posted two months ago, that made her heart kick hard against her ribs.
Calls for descendants to rebuild dying village of Stoneden
After a controversial campaign, the Stoneden Renaissance Committee has pushed through its ambitious proposal to the district council to reinvigorate the village by inviting descendants of former residents to emigrate to Stoneden and contribute to its economic and social viability.
Although Stoneden’s heritage charm has made it popular with Hollywood cinematographers, its population has been declining and its economy has suffered, with the closure of shops and other local businesses. The Renaissance Committee’s president, Mr Clarence James, says the village needs an urgent revival if it is to remain a working village rather than ‘just a museum’.
A similar project was previously launched in Italy, where over 100 castles, monasteries and farms were given away in return for their conversion into tourist destinations to boost local economies. The island of Arranmore in Ireland has also sought to reverse emigration by welcoming professionals from Australia and the US who are able to work remotely from the island and boost its declining population.
A trial phase of one year has been granted to Stoneden’s Renaissance Committee, which now calls for applications from descendants of former residents of the village who have a profession or business and can demonstrate their ability to contribute to the local community and economy. Successful applicants will need to live and work in the village for a minimum of five years (pending final approval after the trial phase), and will receive financial assistance from the council for the transition. In the interests of building the population and securing a future for Stoneden, precedence will be given to families with school-aged children.
Anyone interested, from anywhere in the world, can visit the project’s website to find out more and submit an application.
Olivia read the article, then read it again. She followed the link to the council’s website and absorbed the information, excitement inching her towards the edge of the recliner, as if she could spring up and fly halfway around the world this instant. Stoneden was calling for people just like her, a professional pastry chef with her own business and a school-aged child. And what was there to keep Olivia and Darcy in Tasmania now that Ma was gone? They had no family left here, with Nora’s parents gone at least twenty years and Olivia having lost her own mother when she was a small child. Darcy’s father lived on the other side of the world, in Norway, known to his son only via the internet.
If she had just one wish, it was to have a family once more. Maybe this was the last chance for both her and Darcy to save what was left of their family, building a true relationship between Helge and Darcy, and maybe, just maybe, discovering the last remaining connections to Olivia’s own family tree.
She clicked on the link to apply.
Ten months later
When the three sharp raps sounded on the front door of the cottage, Olivia’s and Darcy’s fingers were coated with butter and flour. It was twenty-four hours since they’d arrived in Stoneden, and the jet lag was knocking them around, but they were keen to get the apple crumble into the oven so they could head out for a leisurely stroll and explore the village’s winding streets.
‘A visitor already?’ Olivia grinned at Darcy and wiped her hands on a tea towel. She hurried along the narrow hallway from the small kitchen to open the front door. It was barely ajar before an angry voice signalled that this might not be a charming English welcome to the neighbourhood after all.
‘Thief,’ the elderly woman accused, her finger pointing directly at Olivia’s chest.
Olivia recoiled in surprise. ‘What?’
‘I saw you from my window,’ the woman hissed, powdered make-up flinting away from her frown lines, her head wrapped tightly in a paisley-patterned scarf.
‘Don’t play the innocent with me. I watched you and that boy of yours stealing my apples. Cleaned up the whole lot, you did.’
Olivia’s jet lagged mind took a moment to process this. ‘But those apples were rotting on the ground.’
‘It’s my right to let my apples rot if I choose,’ the woman said.
‘But they were on our side of the hedgerow.’ Olivia was genuinely confused.
‘What sort of excuse is that?’ The woman tapped the toe of her boot on the stone step. ‘I planted them. I prune them. They’re my apples.’
Olivia took a breath and smiled. ‘Could we start this conversation again?’ She held out her hand. ‘I’m Olivia Kent. My son Darcy and I have just moved here and—’
The woman ignored her outstretched hand. ‘I know who you are. You’re one of the imports brought here by that devil-dealing Renaissance Committee.’ She made a disgusted noise in her throat. ‘They’ve sold you a good story, but you should know that half the village is livid about this and we don’t want you here.’
Olivia turned this information over in her mind. ‘That’s interesting,’ she said, feeling her nose twitch with concern. ‘I’d like to hear more about that. Perhaps we could have a coffee and talk it through sometime in the next few days?’
‘If you last that long.’
Olivia was rendered momentarily speechless by the woman’s audacity, but rallied. ‘Maybe we could just resolve the apple issue for now.’
‘The apples you stole.’
‘Mm, well, forgive me, but in Australia, if the fruit is on your side of the fence, it’s considered yours.’
‘Precisely what I would expect a convict to say,’ her neighbour retorted.
To her dismay, Olivia burst into slightly hysterical laughter.
‘Give me back my apples,’ the woman demanded.
‘I’d gladly do that, except that Darcy and I are making apple crumble. Your apples are all chopped up. You are, however, welcome to join us for afternoon tea to help us eat them.’
The woman’s chin quivered and her eyes narrowed. ‘This is not the end of the matter.’ She spun on her heel and strode away down the drive, boots crunching over the pebbles.
With the apple crumble in the oven and the timer set, Olivia and Darcy ventured out the front door and down the driveway, past the second-hand van they’d picked up yesterday on their arrival in London. The early autumn weather was more comfortable than spring back in Tasmania, where the bitterly cold winter was hanging on. She put her arm around Darcy, pulling him close.
‘I’m so happy we’re finally here,’ she said. Darcy didn’t answer. She pointed out the iconic red English phone booth across the road, and the pretty stone cottages lining the grassy square. They headed down the hill towards town, and stopped outside the gate of the school where Darcy would start classes in a week’s time. As she took in the squat buildings and concrete playground, Olivia felt a qualm. Where was the grass? Darcy seemed equally unimpressed, so she quickly guided him onwards, looking for something more picturesque to raise their spirits once more. They passed a graveyard, tufts of bright green grass sprouting up between wonky moss-covered headstones, and continued along the narrow footpath, spotting small birds nesting under the eaves of houses, ivy entwined around quaint rusted gates, and apple trees laden with fruit calling out to be picked. Olivia grimaced – lesson learnt. She hoped she’d soon mend that particular bridge with her new neighbour.
The row of houses ended at the River Fahn. White swans drifted serenely, and large trout, blushing pink around their necks and gently spotted, drifted lazily through the shallows. It was just like in the photos.
‘Look at that!’ Darcy pointed as a fish leapt out of the water to catch a dragonfly, then splashed back down on its belly and gobbled up its prize. ‘Wow!’
His excitement helped to ease some of Olivia’s tension. They continued, walking along the terrace of shopfronts. The smell of baking bread wafted out of the bakery. A stout woman spied them from behind her glossy black counter, grabbed two paper-wrapped loaves from the wicker baskets at her back and rushed to the doorway to meet them.
‘Are you Olivia?’ she asked in an Irish accent. ‘You’re the last one to arrive.’
‘Yes – and this is my son, Darcy.’
‘Fine lad. I’m Leanne, an import like you.’ She beamed, gesturing to her shop. ‘I’m the new baker. Here, these are for you.’ She thrust the loaves into Olivia’s arms.
‘They smell incredible, thank you.’
‘My pleasure,’ Leanne said. ‘I think we’re going to have to stick together, us imports.’ Coming so soon after the encounter with her hostile neighbour, Leanne’s words made Olivia’s scalp prickle uneasily.
‘Right. Better get back to it. I’m still working out the temperament of my ovens. I’ve got three, each one with a distinct personality of its own and no desire to please me. Rather like cats, they are.’
Darcy giggled. The sun shone on his straw-coloured hair, almost giving him a halo. Olivia’s heart squeezed at the preciousness of him.
Leanne waved goodbye, and they continued on to Olivia’s new shop, the last of the buildings before the ivy-covered four-storey hotel. She’d identified the shop in passing when they drove into the village yesterday. Now she had the key nestled in the pocket of her jeans, and she itched to turn it in the lock and step inside.
Over the past two months, she’d studied floor plans and photos, and sent copious email instructions for the fit-out of the shop. She’d been in contact with both Clarence, the president of the Renaissance Committee, and Howard, its secretary and a retired builder who oversaw all the construction works for the new arrivals. The structural renovations were complete and the walls had been painted. Now, it was up to Olivia to finish the decor, with Darcy’s help.
The freshly painted white wooden door had an ornate iron lock and handle. The shopfront was smart and glossy. The words Rambling Rose Fine Cakes arched across the large display window in pale pink and silver cursive script, above an image of a three-tiered cake overflowing with roses.
‘What do you think?’ she asked Darcy.
‘It’s bigger than the one back home,’ Darcy said, referring to the tiny shop she’d leased in Richmond.
Olivia unlocked the door, and they were just about to step inside when a trio approached them, smiling – a woman with long, dark brown dreadlocks and a bearded man walking behind a girl of around Darcy’s age. The girl was as blonde as her parents were dark.
‘Hi,’ Olivia said, waving at them.
‘Are you an import with the Renaissance Project?’ the woman asked. The young girl smiled shyly at Darcy.
Olivia made a rueful face. ‘Is it that obvious?’
‘Yes!’ The woman laughed heartily, revealing two deep dimples. ‘We are too. I’m Katrina, this is my husband, Russell, and our daughter, Eloise.’
Olivia introduced herself and Darcy. ‘Are you from New Zealand?’ she asked.
‘Windwhistle, South Island. Is the accent that noticeable?’ Katrina laughed.
‘Maybe only to an Aussie.’
‘I think we’re going to have to stick together,’ Russell said, rubbing at his beard. ‘Apparently the locals don’t want us here as much as we were led to believe.’
‘So I’ve heard.’ Olivia widened her eyes.
‘What was your crime?’ Katrina asked.
‘Stealing apples from my neighbour’s tree.’
Katrina snorted and rolled her eyes and Olivia decided she liked her very much. ‘Yours?’
‘Not sorting the recycling properly,’ Russell said. ‘It’s a pretty intense system. At least four bins. I’ll give you a lesson.’
‘Excellent. I’m not sure I can afford to set my neighbour off again anytime soon.’
Darcy and Eloise had crossed the empty street to watch two swans on the river. Olivia noticed Darcy limping slightly, and winced with familiar guilt. The long-haul flight had probably aggravated his injury.
Although she was keen to start work on the shop, the sight of Darcy with a potential new friend made her pause. Right now, it was more important to help him settle in. ‘I’ve got an apple crumble in the oven, made with stolen fruit,’ she ventured. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like to come up and help us eat the evidence?’
‘I’ve got to get back to the farm to fix a fence,’ Russell said, apologetically.
‘But Eloise and I would love to come over,’ Katrina chimed in, and Olivia’s heart lifted.
‘Well, if you’re going to go down for stealing apples then that was a great way to do it. I think that might be the best apple crumble I’ve ever had.’ Katrina wiped up the last of the crumbs and cream with a fingertip, staring sadly at her empty bowl. She leant back in her chair, raised her coffee to her lips, sipped, and pulled a face.
‘It’s terrible, isn’t it?’ Olivia said, grinning.
‘No, sorry, it’s . . .’ Katrina was obviously embarrassed to be caught out.
‘It’s fine, really, and it’s not just you. Why’s it so different?’ Olivia said, staring sadly into the dark brew in her mug.
‘Maybe it’s the water?’ Katrina said mournfully. ‘We had rainwater tanks on the farm back home.’
Darcy and Eloise chattered happily in the lounge room, playing a card game version of Monopoly. Olivia was thrilled that Darcy had made a new friend so quickly, and one who would be starting school at the same time.
‘Did you know your fridge is leaning to one side?’ Katrina said, tilting her own head to the left.
‘I almost pulled it on top of myself last night,’ Olivia said. ‘My fridge at home has a sticky door so I have to give it a good yank. I did that to this one and it staggered towards me like a drunken dance partner. Scared me half to death.’
The kitchen was a modern add-on to the original eighteenth-century cottage. Its floor sloped a bit, but the black-and-white chequered linoleum distracted the eye from the tilt. Ironically, the rest of the centuries-old cottage was possibly in better shape than the modern part.
‘So, what made you decide to join in with this crazy Renaissance Project?’ Katrina asked. Straight to the point – that was obviously Katrina’s style. She’d already told Olivia that she was a nurse and would be working in the village’s sole general practice. Olivia could totally see her in that role. With her warm, direct, no-nonsense manner, she was exactly the type of professional you’d want around in a crisis.
‘There were a few reasons.’ Olivia crossed one jeans-clad leg over the other. ‘Darcy’s dad lives in Oslo and they’ve never met in person – he’s only spoken to Helge and his wife and kids via Skype. This seemed like a good opportunity for us to move closer.’
‘Perfect,’ Katrina enthused. ‘That’s only a short flight from London – a couple of hours?’
‘Also,’ Olivia leant forward and lowered her voice, ‘there were some issues last year at Darcy’s school, with the other kids, and everything imploded. And then my ma died.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ Katrina said, with a sympathetic grimace.
‘She was actually my grandmother, but my own mother died in a horseriding accident when I was two, and I never knew my father, so Grandma just became Ma – she was the only mother I knew. When she died, I realised that I knew almost nothing of her life before she moved to Australia, and I was desperate to reclaim something of her past for us. I was terrified of forgetting her. When I saw the call for descendants to emigrate to Stoneden, it seemed like a chance to learn more about her and perhaps find some long-lost relatives.’
‘That’s a very good reason,’ said Katrina.
They were quiet a moment, listening to the kids thump up the narrow spiral staircase to the bedrooms above, probably looking to ransack Darcy’s luggage for something else to play with.
Olivia gathered up her long honey-blonde hair, piling it on top of her head while she thought. ‘That’s why I was so excited about the Renaissance Project, and why I want to save this place. The fact that it was Ma’s home makes it a part of me too. This village is in my DNA. I want the chance to get to know it before it’s too late.’
‘Russell felt the same,’ Katrina said. ‘Both he and I have grandparents from around here. That’s where Eloise gets her fair hair from, by the way. I promise you she is ours, though it’s hard to tell by looking at her.’ She laughed. ‘My grandparents are still alive but they can’t travel anymore. We’re doing this for them as much as ourselves.’
Olivia gave an anxious grin. ‘We just have to make sure we don’t get kicked out before we’ve even started.’
‘I suspect the committee has its work cut out for it,’ Katrina said. ‘While the project’s in the trial phase, there’s still a chance it could be shut down. There’s already so much resistance to it. We had no idea.’ She shook her head in dismay. ‘We’ve upended our whole life for something that could be pulled out from under us at any moment.’
‘We can’t let that happen,’ Olivia said, determinedly. ‘Failure is not an option.’