- Published: 30 April 2018
- ISBN: 9780143789192
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $32.99
The Kookaburra Creek Café
Kookaburra Creek, 2010
She ran as fast as she could.
‘Where are you?’ she screamed, her voice cracking.
Her throat hurt. Every gasp for air was difficult. She couldn’t see very far through the thick black smoke, but she was sure she was close now. She had to be.
Angry orange flames danced across the tops of the gum trees behind her, chasing her down. But she wouldn’t stop. She wouldn’t leave him out here alone.
She coughed. No air.
‘Are you here?’ she rasped.
Trees cracked beside her. Branches exploded, sending hot black shards into the air. She ducked. She weaved.
There in the clearing she could see a quiet shadow.
‘There you are. Silly boy, running off. It’s okay. I’m here now. But we have to go.’ She could see fear in his eyes. ‘Are you hurt? Can you walk?’
He whimpered. She fell to her knees and ran her hands through his thick coat.
Tears started to fall down her face, before evaporating into the hot, dry air. ‘It’s okay. I’m here.’ She coughed again. Each breath was harder than the last.
‘We’ll be okay,’ she said, as she lay down in the dirt beside her best friend. He nuzzled into her arm. ‘We can rest a little bit, then we have to go.’
She closed her eyes, coughing, wheezing. A minute was all she dared rest.
Kookaburra Creek, 2018
Alice Pond opened the door to the Kookaburra Creek Café and the brass bell hanging from the entrance frame didn’t clang.
Most people entering the café wouldn’t have noticed the absence of the bell’s ring, but for the last fourteen years every morning of Alice’s life had been exactly the same. Nearly every morning. And that meant Alice certainly did notice.
The oven timer’s discordant buzz, in contrasting harmony with the door chimes, should have assaulted her ears as she opened the door. But there was only silence.
The smell of freshly cooked bread left to bake overnight should have greeted her. But there was no delicious doughy aroma wafting through the room.
Something was wrong.
Alice looked above her head to see the bracket holding the bell to the door frame was slightly bent. Her eyes darted around the room. Everything else seemed to be in place. The green gingham curtains were drawn shut, the piles of serviettes were on the counter where she’d left them the night before, the chairs were still atop the tables.
Then her gaze fell on the counter. The register was open.
Alice’s stomach tightened as she moved slowly through the dining room.
Carefully she inched open the white shutters that divided the dining room and kitchen. The oven was off. She frowned. The pantry door was slightly ajar and she picked up the rolling pin as she tiptoed past the bench. Not that it would do her any good against a band of thieves, or even one thief if they were serious. But false confidence was better than none.
She stepped towards the pantry door. The sound of something hitting the floor, a lid perhaps, made Alice jump. The buggers better not be into her flour. Surely no one would think to look in there for her stashed savings. Well, whoever they were, they picked the wrong café to break into.
She pushed the slatted door open. A crumpled mess of grey spun round to face her.
‘Ha-ya!’ Alice screamed out, adopting her fiercest ninja pose, rolling pin poised for attack.
‘What the —?’ The grey mess jumped back and grabbed the closest object to its flailing hands – a tin of beetroot.
The hand holding the beetroot tin was very small and there was a slight curve beneath the grey hoodie. Alice’s thief was a girl. A young girl with pieces of half-cooked bread crumbs caught in the folds of her tattered jumper. At least that explained what had happened to her baking.
‘The door was open. I didn’t break in,’ the girl said at once, stepping back and forth looking for a way past her captor.
‘What are you doing here?’ Alice asked, trying to control her breathing. It was just a child. ‘If you put back whatever you’ve taken, I won’t call the police.’
‘Don’t you dare call the cops.’ The girl pushed her greasy black hair behind her ears and raised her eyes to Alice in defiance.
From Alice’s trembling hand the rolling pin crashed to the floor, a resounding thud echoing through the silent café, and she gasped.
Those two piercing blue eyes.
The girl shoved past her and sprinted through the café.
‘Sorry.’ Alice ran after her. ‘Wait. I just . . .’
But the girl rushed past, out the café and into the trees across the large grass clearing that stretched in front of the café before Alice got to the bottom of the steps.
Alice sat on the deck that wrapped around the café and tried to calm her racing thoughts. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen his eyes gazing back at her from a stranger’s face. It wasn’t the second or third. There was a time when she saw those eyes in every male she met. In the stare of the postie who’d delivered her bills; the mischievous gazes of the boys in the pub who were probably too young to drink; every second customer that came into the café when she first arrived in Kookaburra Creek. No, it wasn’t the first time she’d seen Dean McRae’s eyes in another. But only once before had she seen his eyes in a young girl, and that was so long ago, in a life no longer hers.
It was several minutes before Alice felt calm enough to rise on shaky legs and head back inside. Fractured images from her past fought for attention, but she blocked them out. She had a café to open. She couldn’t dwell on wasted memories.
She stood in her kitchen, her heart beating fast, not sure where to start. It was too late to make more bread. Betty would be upset, no doubt. So would Claudine. They loved her homemade loaves. But they’d forgive her, just like they had that time a town-wide blackout had turned the oven off in the small hours of the morning. She’d make up some excuse or other. Joey would be able to bring over a few loaves from the bakery if she texted him now, and he’d be popping by for his coffee in about twenty minutes anyway.
Coffee! She hadn’t put her coffee on. Nothing could be achieved before that ritual was taken care of. The drip of the Colombian blend falling into her favourite yellow mug was just the tonic she needed. She switched on the coffee machine to heat up and freshly ground the beans. She’d make enough for two.
She took down the wooden chairs, each a different colour – blue, pink, red, orange, purple, green – from the round white tables they perched on overnight. She rearranged them in new combinations, as she did each morning. Except Joey’s chair. He liked the aqua and he liked it beside the east-facing window. He was her best customer, after all, even if his motives weren’t altogether benign, so she kept his favourite spot for him, just the way he liked it.
As her coffee cooled she wiped down the tables and set them with the salt and pepper shakers collected from around the world: Babushka dolls, English phone booths, an Eiffel Tower set. Every time someone from town travelled overseas, they brought shakers back from their trip as a gift for Alice. Joey had started the tradition with the Leaning Tower of Pisa set and Betty had continued it with the two camels from Dubai. One day, on the table in the middle of the café, Alice would place a set she brought back herself.
She hoped the young thief was all right, that she hadn’t been too frightened. Alice knew a little something about being discovered where you shouldn’t be. She could never forget those early days when scared, alone and afraid, she’d stumbled upon the neglected café in the tiny town of Kookaburra Creek nestled in the hills in the middle of nowhere and somewhere.
As always, the routine of setting up the café soothed Alice completely, and she slowly sipped her coffee in front of good old Sylvia while waiting for inspiration to strike.
Sylvia always provided an answer, of course. Her warm expression and kind eyes looked down on Alice from her framed place on the wall above the oven, her grey hair collected in a white cotton bonnet. At least they were the colours Alice imagined behind the sepia tones of the picture. Sylvia wasn’t her real name, though there was no reason it couldn’t have been. Alice had simply called her that all those years ago when she first stepped into the kitchen and looked up in wide-eyed terror, wondering how on earth she’d ended up in this town.
Sylvia had told her that day, by way of the recipe that fell to the bench when Alice reached up to touch the picture hanging on the wall, to bake chocolate fudge cupcakes. So she had. It was the first cake of any description she’d ever made and the world stilled. It was as if everything around her had quieted. It was the first time in Alice’s life she’d been able to switch off the constant thoughts in her head. The first time she’d been able to forget the scars and bruises collected in her life and enter The Silence. And so it had been that way ever since.
Alice looked into Sylvia’s eyes and waited, asking her silently what to bake today. The answer came at once: strawberry and white chocolate.
Alice lowered her cup, her heart pounding, and stared hard at Sylvia. ‘What?’
Sylvia gazed straight back, her eyes giving nothing away.
With shaking hands Alice pulled out the red and white polka-dotted patty cases from the pantry and lined the cupcake tin. She hesitantly reached for her bowls, beaters and measuring cups. Sylvia had never been wrong before. But strawberry and white chocolate?
Alice closed her eyes and, when she opened them again, the morning chorus of magpies and lyrebird no longer floated through the open window, the constant, gentle buzz of the old fridge could not be heard: The Silence.
Her hands steadied as she hulled the strawberries, chopped them into small pieces and folded them into the batter. She pushed a square of white chocolate into the centre of each waiting cupcake and her breathing quickened. Strawberries and white chocolate was not a combination she’d ever used before. Or ever wanted to use. Strawberries, yes. White chocolate, yes. But never together. Memories of that night so long ago teased the edges of Alice’s mind. How could Sylvia have known?
Alice slid the tray on to the oven shelf and shut the glass door. She cranked up the music on the radio and moved her hips in time with the beat as she cleaned down the bench and started washing up.
The three-tiered cupcake stand on the counter was Alice’s very favourite thing in the room. After the photo of Sylvia, her favourite thing in the whole café. In itself it was nothing special – plain white ceramic that you could probably pick up in any homeware store in any town. But it was the same stand she’d displayed her first batch of cakes on and each batch since, and she always felt such pride every time she loaded the tiers with creations she’d made on her own from scratch.
This particular morning was different, though. Her hands were unsteady as she arranged the strawberry and white chocolate cakes. She shook her head. Stop being so silly. It was a coincidence, that’s all. How could Sylvia possibly have known the significance of strawberry and white chocolate and that night so very long ago? She was an inanimate object, for goodness’ sake. And how could she possibly have known the girl with Dean McRae’s eyes would be in Alice’s pantry that same morning? She couldn’t have. That’s right.
‘They look good.’ A deep voice startled Alice from her thoughts of the past and she dropped the last cupcake, frosting down, on her bright blue bench. ‘Sorry, Alice. I’ll take that one with my coffee.’
‘Good morning, Joey. The usual?’ she asked, handing him the double espresso she’d started making before he’d even turned up.
Monday was Joey’s only day off from his bakery, and at 9 a.m. Mrs Harris, the reverend’s wife, started her shift in Moretti’s Bread House. Every Monday Joey then made the walk to the Kookaburra Creek Café and 9.06 on the dot he arrived for his double espresso and cupcake after a long morning baking.
‘I got your text. Here are those loaves you wanted.’ He put one white, one wholemeal and one tomato and olive loaf on the bench. ‘What happened this time?’ He asked fondly. ‘Or do you finally concede your bread will never be as good as mine?’
‘Haha. I just, um . . . I forgot to set the timer. Silly me.’ Alice couldn’t tell him the truth. He’d only worry if he found out the café had been broken into.
Joey shook his head. ‘How long have we known each other, Alice? I can always tell when you’re lying. Something’s got you rattled.’
He reached across the bench and took her hand, his gentle touch warm, yet hesitant. Still. After all these years.
She started to tug her hand away and he immediately released it, frowning.
‘I’d better head.’ He nodded and Alice watched him leave. His old dog, Shadow, waited patiently at the bottom of the deck, big eyes staring up, ever hopeful Alice would let him back into the place he once knew as home. But she couldn’t.
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