- Published: 15 April 2020
- ISBN: 9781760893613
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $19.99
The Gift of Life
‘So, it’s been a year since The Tin Man opened?’ the journalist asked, checking her notes. She was young and shiny and chirpy, which gave Gabby hope the article would be a correspondingly positive one.
‘That’s right,’ Gabby said. She nodded to the glass wall that separated the front of house from the back of house, through to the roasting machine that was currently in action, her new coffee roaster Luciano efficiently pouring a big bucket of green beans into the hopper right at that moment. ‘Now we’ve launched our own specialty roasting service, with three signature blends.’
The young woman flicked her long black hair off her shoulder, nodded and wrote down more notes.
Gabby handed her the signature blend card, with the name and description of each creation. ‘Would you like to try one? I can get Ed to make you one now.’
‘No, thanks, I don’t drink coffee. It sends me cray cray,’ the journalist said, her laughter tinkling.
‘Ah, fair enough.’ Gabby’s optimism for this story nosedived, which was a shame. One year in, the business was doing well – any business that made it through its first year was on a good footing – but if she was going to pay back her business loan in any kind of timely manner, or start making enough profit to consider one day buying her own home again, rather than living with her dad, then she really needed to be speeding up its growth. Investing in the roasting machine had been risky and involved significant additional debt, so she needed as much publicity as possible.
‘It’s beautiful in here,’ the young woman said, gazing around admiringly. ‘Did you do the interior design yourself?’
‘A lot of it. My sister Pippa is a graphic designer and she has a real eye for these things, so she had input as well.’
In the middle of The Tin Man was an aged twelve-foot wooden ladder, worn smooth and dried hard as amber, suspended from the ceiling and entwined with crimson flowers and fairy lights. On the whitewashed wooden floor, overstuffed chocolate-brown leather chairs were adorned with sheepskin throws, and the tables held posies of flowers. A long glass cabinet displayed coffee cream macarons and latte cupcakes. Sounding through the space was the constant whir, clack and froth of the coffee machine, the chatter of businesswomen and men, bursts of laughter and the bells and buzzes of mobile phones. Gabby liked the bustle and the noise. It was evidence of life all around her, a life she desperately wanted to be a part of for many more years yet.
‘I pulled out the article we did on you last year,’ the journalist said. Gabby wished she could remember the woman’s name. It was one of the side effects she lived with these days – poor short-term memory. People’s names in particular were often just out of reach. ‘I love that you named this place The Tin Man because he was looking for a heart, and you needed a heart and had a heart transplant! That is so cool.’
‘Mmm. I was one of the lucky ones.’ In truth, this line of promotion made Gabby slightly uncomfortable. She’d used it as a publicity angle when she opened the cafe and the media had lapped it up. Organ transplant stories were always a welcome happy news item for them and Pippa had helped her get as much traction out of it as possible. They’d even had a morning television crew come and broadcast from the cafe, and she was certain it had helped lift business. She was happy to talk about organ donation and encourage people to discuss it with their families, and certainly the hospital and medical staff loved positive media coverage too. Still, she felt vaguely reluctant to use it again this time. It was the ever-present, gnawing guilt that she was alive because someone else had died.
The journalist, perhaps sensing her hesitation, closed her notebook and put it into her bright pink silk bag. ‘I think I have everything I need. I better get back to the office and type this up. It should be in tomorrow’s paper.’
Gabby stood and shook her hand. ‘So quickly? That’s fabulous. Thank you so much for coming.’
‘You’ve done really well here. And your heart is all good? Everything’s okay?’ She looked nervously at Gabby’s chest.
Gabby plastered a smile on her face. ‘Everything’s going great.’ It was imperative that she appear strong and capable. She couldn’t be the weak link in the cafe’s success. She walked the journalist to the front door, where they paused momentarily to admire the rainbows cast from water splashing in the fountain. ‘It’s my two-year anniversary this Saturday. I might even have a drink to celebrate,’ she said – jovial, reassuring.
‘You should totally do that!’ Then the journalist was gone, leaving Gabby to stand for a moment and reflect on what this place had grown into in the past year.
The Tin Man was nestled in a small sandstone complex, in a square set back from Chapel Street in Melbourne’s South Yarra, alongside a clothes shop and a hairdresser, with a dazzling fountain in front. Mid mornings, sunlight reflected off the fountain and created a spray of whirling golden sparkles on the floor-to-ceiling windows of the cafe.
Each morning the person who’d opened the cafe wheeled out a small coffee cart to the street and stayed there till 9 am, catching those who were too busy to come inside as they darted for buses and trams or hurried on foot to work or school. Gabby was proud of this place – she wanted it to one day be the legacy she left for her children. Hopefully the newspaper article would be one more piece of effective publicity to continue building this dream.
Pippa arrived at eleven o’clock the next morning, carrying the newspaper. She was looking fabulous as always, in a charcoal-grey apron dress over a long-sleeved black tee, with black tights and boots, and her long hair in two plaits. A chunky black-and-white necklace and flawless matt make-up completed the outfit. She looked younger than her years, trendy and so artsy. Gabby sat next to her at a table in the corner, away from the noisy coffee machine, and they put their red heads together to read the article. Pippa had become something of an unofficial marketing and publicity manager for Gabby and would scrutinise every piece of media about The Tin Man.
‘Oh, I see what you mean about the chirpiness,’ Pippa said as she read.
‘It’s a bit over the top, but that’s better than underwhelming.’
It was a half-page colour spread, with lovely photos they had provided of Gabby, Ed making coffee, the glass cabinet and its gorgeous cream-filled contents, and artfully placed coffee cups on a wooden table.
Pippa tapped the page. ‘Listen to this: The Tin Man’s delectable range of signature blends are guaranteed to please any coffee enthusiast. Well, that’s a bit fabulous.’
Gabby read aloud next. ‘In-house coffee roaster Luciano Colombera brings his Italian heritage to the trade, imbuing every roast with stunning authenticity.’
‘He’ll love that,’ Pippa said, grinning.
Luciano was a tricky man, one Gabby hadn’t quite worked out yet. He blew hot and cold, happy to chat some days, distracted and moody on others.
Then Pippa frowned.
‘What is it?’ Gabby angled the paper to read. ‘Where are you up to?’
Pippa pointed to a paragraph lower down the page.
Gabriella McPhee named her cafe The Tin Man because she is a heart transplant recipient and wanted to honour her journey while building her dream business. She says she is one of the lucky ones. The two-year anniversary of her heart transplant is this weekend, October 5.
‘Oh, no,’ Gabby groaned. ‘We’re not supposed to give out the date. I just mentioned it at the end, after the interview was finished. I didn’t think she’d put it in.’
Pippa rested her chin in her hand. ‘Maybe it will be okay.’
‘Maybe.’ There was nothing she could do about it now; she’d just have to wait and see what happened. ‘Anyway, tell me what’s going on with you.’
Pippa sighed and closed the paper, handing it to Gabby. ‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’
‘Harvey and I aren’t in a good place. We haven’t been for a long time.’
Gabby waited for more information. She’d known things weren’t great, but she’d expected they’d bounce back okay.
Pippa shrugged and looked out over the customers in the cafe. Gabby followed her gaze. Nearly all the tables were filled and there was a hum of chatter throughout. ‘We’ve been trying date nights for a while in an effort to reconnect. Things are awkward, all the time. We snap. We fight. There’s no joy any more.’
‘That’s tough,’ Gabby said, genuinely sympathetic. She and Cam had divorced five years ago and she remembered the feeling of hopelessness the final years had brought. She knew Pippa and Harvey fought. She could feel the tension in their house but simply thought they were suffering the exhaustion that everyone in the modern world seemed to be feeling.
‘Did something happen, in particular?’ she asked cautiously.
‘Not an affair or anything, if that’s what you mean.’ Pippa stiffened.
‘Well, not that I know of.’ Her jaw was set grimly.
‘Harvey doesn’t seem like the affair type,’ Gabby agreed. Harvey was one of those straight and boring types, in her opinion. She wouldn’t have thought he had enough imagination to have an affair. Then again, the quiet ones could surprise you.
The idea that Pippa and Harvey might be on the verge of a split was unsettling in its own right, but for Gabby it created a whole other level of angst. Pippa and Harvey were a solid contingency plan to care for Gabby’s three children if – more likely when – she died. But Pippa already had four children of her own. Raising seven children would be a stretch even for two working parents, let alone a single mother.
Of course, Cam was the logical choice to look after their three children, but lately he seemed to be barely coping with the shared custody they had agreed on.
Just ten more years, she silently pleaded. In ten years her youngest would be twenty, which was still awfully young to lose your mother, but at least she would be an adult.
Pippa sipped her tea in silence and Gabby kept her fears to herself. This moment wasn’t about her; it was about Pippa. Marriages fell apart for all sorts of reasons. Pippa and Harvey had met when they were young, when she was studying graphic design at college and he technology. Statistically, they were prime candidates for relationship breakdown.
‘Have you thought about counselling?’ Gabby ventured.
Pippa flinched. ‘I have. And I know this sounds pathetic, but the idea of it just fills me with dread and . . . humiliation.’
‘You’re far from alone in this situation.’
‘I know.’ Pippa rallied some energy. ‘Maybe we just need a bit more time, you know? Both of us really putting in the effort. A cleaner wouldn’t go astray, either. The daily grind of domesticity is killing me.’
‘That sounds like a good, practical place to start,’ Gabby said, allowing a gossamer thread of hope to hover between them for a moment.
They chatted about lighter subjects for a while, until Pippa said she had to go home to get some work done on a brochure for a client who owned a beauty salon. The lunchtime rush was in full swing, the line at the counter stretching towards the door. Gabby gave Pippa a large, big-sister hug and waved goodbye, sad to see her so unhappy. Life was just too short to be miserable.
She turned to see how she could help out in the cafe. She didn’t need to work the floor; she’d set up the business that way from the start because, as a heart transplant recipient, she couldn’t always be relied upon to be fit and able to work. Still, she loved it here and needed to feel useful and engaged.
As she neared the counter, someone caught her eye. There was a woman in a pink shawl sitting against the green wall of living plants. Gabby had seen her earlier on when she was talking to Pippa. Now she realised the woman had been nursing the same cup of coffee for some time. She didn’t mind that – customers often sat on a lone cuppa. Looking at her properly now, though, the back of Gabby’s neck prickled.
As she watched, the woman looked up and their eyes met. Gabby started, then offered a smile, but the woman flushed and turned away, pulling her shawl tighter around her thin body.
Gabby took a step towards her, planning to ask her if she could help her out with another drink, not because she felt the need to sell another cup but simply as a way to start a conversation. If there was one thing she knew only too well, it was that people had all sorts of drama going on in their lives and sometimes they just needed a stranger’s listening ear to help them through.
She didn’t get the chance. The woman got to her feet, slung her tote over her shoulder and scurried to the front door, pausing infinitesimally before the life-sized Tin Man at the entrance before disappearing down Chapel Street.
‘Everything okay?’ Ed asked from behind the counter.
Gabby smiled but felt uneasy. ‘Yes, I just thought I saw someone . . .’ She shook her head. ‘It doesn’t matter. Can I help you here?’
The young barista bang-banged her filter basket over the knock box and turned a dial on the machine to rinse it with water, ready to start on the next order. Ed peered over her shoulder, searching for Lin, their kitchenhand and general all-rounder. Through the glass wall they could both see her stacking the dishwasher with the efficiency of a sword fighter.
‘Order for Tony!’ The second barista, Kyle, still wearing a black and yellow Richmond scarf after the previous weekend’s AFL grand final, dusted cappuccinos with chocolate powder, clicked on two plastic lids and positioned the drinks in a cardboard takeaway tray next to a long black and a flat white.
‘I think we’re running low on whipped cream,’ Ed told Gabby, her perfect blonde brows knitting together.
‘I’ll get it.’ Gabby pushed through the wooden swing doors into the kitchen. ‘You’re doing a great job, Lin,’ she said as she passed the kitchenhand on her way to the fridge.
‘Thanks,’ Lin said, flashing her beautiful little dimples. To support herself while studying at university, the young woman split her working hours between The Tin Man and her family’s restaurant in Chinatown.
Gabby retrieved the cream and glanced across the room at her new coffee director. On the day of the interviews Gabby had been sick and in hospital – nothing serious, just a common cold turned nasty and her doctors had wanted her on an antibiotic drip for a couple of days. Pippa had stepped in to conduct the interviews and had chosen Luciano Colombera for the job.
The first time Gabby had met him, he’d been in the roasting area, crouched down near some hessian bags of green beans, testing their moisture levels the old-fashioned way – by cracking them between his teeth. If they hadn’t been dried properly they wouldn’t roast properly, and from the way he was frowning he was either seriously unimpressed or concentrating to the point of pain. He wore Blundstone boots with jeans and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and he sported a dense whiskery growth of dark hair on his jaw, which matched his dark eyes. By anyone’s standards, the man was hot.
‘Hi,’ Gabby had said, striding to him with her hand outstretched.
‘I’m Gabriella McPhee, owner of The Tin Man, and Pippa’s older sister – you met her at the interview.’
He craned his neck to look up at her from his squatting position near the beans and held out his hand.
‘Luciano,’ he said, giving her an appraising look that wasn’t unfriendly, but wasn’t warm either. She couldn’t get a read on him. She took his hand, feeling her heart tapping nervously. He squeezed her hand just right – not too hard or slack, but confident. They hadn’t talked long. Or, more precisely, she hadn’t talked long, because he was evidently not a big talker, and this dark and broody mood was something she’d come to know as one that could descend suddenly and then vanish just as quickly.
Now, she still knew little about him. He’d had an animated discussion with Kyle about football – he also supported Richmond – and he was always particularly polite to Lin, which Gabby really appreciated. You could tell a lot about someone by the way they treated the lowest ranking staff in a business. She’d heard him have many long phone conversations in Italian with Marco, their coffee trader. And the man sure knew how to roast a bean. Yet often when she spoke to him it was as though he stared through her for a second before pulling his mind back from far away.
She watched him now as he scooped gorgeous chocolate coloured beans from a bucket and onto the scales to weigh them. She considered calling out to him, determined to keep trying to build some sort of connection with him, but decided to wait until he was less busy. Instead, she turned back towards the front of house with the cream in her hand. She pushed open the swing door. Her eyes darted to the table by the wall, where the woman with the pink shawl had been sitting just moments ago. Her chest squeezed tight, almost to the point of pain.
She was running down a dark alley.
A streetlight cast a sickly pool of orange.
Her breath rasped noisily in her ears as cold air scraped down her throat.
Fear spiked her blood.
She was trapped.