- Published: 30 January 2017
- ISBN: 9780143781110
- Imprint: Bantam Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
The Shifting Light
Tap. Tap. Tap. The noise was familiar, yet one she hadn’t heard in a long while. Nina opened an eye. There it was again. Tap. And then a change. Plunk. Rain on the tin roof. She opened her other eye.
Soft early light ?ltered through the autumn-coloured curtains, casting the 1950s teak furniture and timber ?oorboards in a warm glow that belied the chill in the air. Nina huddled further under the doona, glad of her long pyjama pants. Now she could smell the rain; that raw damp perfume of renewal, of promise. She turned, but the other side of the bed was empty, save for a still-warm indentation on the ?annelette sheet and a faint scent; soap, sweat. He must have got up at dawn, yet he hadn’t arrived home till after midnight.
Whether he was out in the Cessna working on another property, or on a commercial ?ight from some sustainable farming meeting, Nina always waited up till she knew Heath was safely on the ground. She vaguely recalled a whispered hello last night, a warm kiss and the heavy thunk his boots made as he threw them onto the ?oor.
They were gone now too. Nina sat up and pushed her dark curls away from her face. There would be no lingering in bed, no matter how delicious it
felt. She grabbed Heath’s heavy wool jumper from a chair where he had tossed it, pulled it over her head and padded out to the verandah.
The rain had blurred the edges of the ?at landscape, giving it a dream-like quality. The silver grasses shimmered over the black soil that so easily got into – and under – your skin. Nina looked past the vegetable garden, beyond the sheds and stables and the hangar behind them, until her eyes locked on the giant carob tree that had stood guard since well before Kurrabar homestead was built more than 60 years ago. A cloud of pink cockatoos nestled in its branches. Then, with a secret signal, the birds rose as one, sweeping into the air in a squawking haze that shattered the grey sky like a pane of glass.
It was in moments like these that the almost physical pull of this land came back to her. It was a feeling ?rst awakened during her childhood holidays when it had become harder and harder to leave. For days afterwards she would be left with a hollow feeling, a dull Sunday-nightish ache that she had found hard to de?ne. She’d been back now for more than two years and this sense of belonging here had grown even stronger.
Heath’s tall ?gure emerged from behind the hangar, Nina’s brown kelpie Syd at his heels. He strode towards the yards where Lobby, the station hand, was throwing bricks of hay for Jet, the black stallion. There were a million jobs that needed doing and Heath had obviously found one of them. After all these dry weeks, the rain would be a crucial test for the new grass seed planting. Nina watched as he pointed out something in the distance to Lobby and then stood, hands on hips, his broad shoulders square.
She smiled. Heath always seemed so sure of himself. It was what had attracted her to him in the ?rst place. You always knew what he thought, and what he thought about you. And she loved that. Since they had been together, he had never wavered in his determination to change Kurrabar from an old-fashioned cattle station to a property that didn’t damage the land on which it depended. But it came at a heavy price. Not just in the money they were forever ploughing into planting trees and grasses, but in the scepticism and hostility it sometimes sparked in other farmers, and in the way his project ate into their time together.
Nina whistled. Heath turned and waved before cupping his hands to his mouth. ‘There in a sec,’ he yelled. It was too far to see, but she knew he was smiling at her and her body ?lled with a familiar warmth.
While the coffee brewed, she checked her phone. Izzy had miraculously managed to get a message through: Got real doozies this time. Shd be there 12.30.
Every three or four weeks, Isobel Rainbow’s tour company brought a busload of painters to Nina’s property, The Springs – six kilometres from Kurrabar. Izzy, with her sardonic humour and well-oiled ef?ciency, had given the Painted Sky Art Retreat a real boost, becoming someone Nina could depend on as a friend.
Nina began texting a reply when a blast from the landline made her jump. She would never get used to that blaring ring. In Sydney, landlines were novelties, almost antiques. But here they were a necessity.
‘So, you’ve landed?’ Nina asked before Izzy had a chance to speak, guessing it could only be her at this hour.
‘Yeah, ?rst ?ight out of Sydney,’ sighed her friend. ‘But we’re now setting a record for the slowest crossing of a Dubbo car park. It’s like The Walking Dead. They shuf?e almost to the bus and my hopes go up. Then they go back to the toilet or for something they’ve forgotten. Then the shuf?ing again. They take turns, I’m sure of it.’
‘I hope you’ve still got eight of them?’ laughed Nina.
‘Surprisingly, yes. It’s a miracle I haven’t killed one by now. Oh, and Maggie Mainwaring is with us – again. Yes, I know she’s a sweetie but she forgets each tour as soon as she ? nishes it.’
‘And don’t forget, we have one vego this time,’ said Izzy.
‘Got it,’ Nina replied as the screen door banged. In seconds Heath’s hands were around her. She sank back into his chest, damp with rain. His arms tightened around her.
‘I have to go,’ hissed Izzy. ‘They’re all in. Better lock the door before one escapes. See you at The Springs at lunchtime.’
‘Yep – and remind Hamish to watch for roos.’
Nina wriggled from Heath’s arms to drop the receiver back on its cradle and then turned to face him. She looked into his steel-grey eyes and stroked his stubbled cheek. ‘I don’t have to be there for another couple of hours, you know,’ she whispered as her lips brushed his earlobe and her ?ngers felt the familiar lines of the burn scar down his neck.
He sighed. ‘Wish I could stay,’ he said reaching for a cup. ‘But I need to get over to Peg Myers at Goodooga to see how the new contours work with this rain. Give us an idea if we’re on the right track. Only window she’s got. Be back after lunch but I guess you’ll be gone by then.’
‘Well, looks like it’s tonight. I’ll make it up to you.’ He kissed her softly on the lips and then downed his coffee. ‘Oh, yeah, another thing. Kathryn called – she and Mac are back. They’re coming for dinner tomorrow night.’
A sigh escaped before Nina could stop it.
Kathryn and Mackenzie Blackett, district grazing royalty, were great aunt and uncle to Heath, but were more like parents since the accident. Despite some rocky moments, Nina liked them, but she had lately felt a subtle yet unrelenting pressure coming from Kathryn because she and Heath weren’t yet ‘of?cially engaged’.
At least she had been warned they were coming. She smiled when she thought of the look on Kathryn’s face last time she had popped in unannounced. She had sprung Nina coming out of the chook shed covered in muck and wearing shortie Batgirl pyjama pants and orange gum boots. She was certain Kathryn had never worn any out?t remotely resembling this at any time in her 70-odd years.
Heath interrupted her thoughts. ‘Come on, Mac and Kathryn aren’t so bad.’ He smoothed her hair. ‘They bloody worship you. They want us to be happy, that’s all.'
‘I know.’ Nina smiled and passed him some toast. ‘It’s all good.’
‘So, that was Izzy?’ Heath asked.
‘Yeah. What would I do without that girl?’
‘Go broke for starters.’
‘Very funny.’ She hit him playfully. But under the jibe was a painful truth. Her art retreat was just starting to break even. ‘Hey, Izzy’ll be here when Ben and Olivia come up. It’s crazy they’ve never met.’
‘Yep. Not so sure about Olivia, though.’
‘What? I think I’d know if she wasn’t coming.’ Nina had been hanging out for months to see her best friend and hear all the Sydney goss. Heath’s younger brother, Ben, and Olivia had been together for a couple of years while he was studying agriculture in Sydney.
‘Maybe. But from what Ben says I think something might be up.’
‘What do you mean?’ Nina felt her heart sink.
‘Maybe a lack of commitment on her part.’
Heath held her gaze for a moment too long.
She sat silently as he collected his hat, kissed her on top of the head and marched outside into the drizzle, making her feel strangely abandoned. He was perfect. What was wrong with her?
Heath was so patient, she thought guiltily. When she ?rst moved from The Springs into Kurrabar with him, they had talked of getting married, and soon. But as the days turned to months, then years, she had found herself avoiding the subject. They were happy, why change things? Her parents had hardly been a great advertisement for marriage. Her father had lived a lie for years. Nina looked around the dated kitchen. There was more to this dilemma than she liked to admit. Most of her stuff was still at The Springs and the thought of making a complete move made her feel cornered.
It was not yet 6.30. Maybe she would have a lie-in after all. She headed to the bedroom when her eye caught a sketchbook by the side of the wardrobe. That’s right. Doddery Maggie had given her some drawings to look at. Bugger. She had better do it now.
Nina threw it on the bed, grabbed a notebook and pen from the bedside table and snuggled cross-legged under the covers.
She opened the ?rst page. A still life. Nice. Next, a young girl dancing by the shore. Maggie had a great sense of movement; the lines swirling over the page almost dancing themselves. Nina made some notes, put the pen in her mouth and kept looking. The girl again, better this time.
She turned the page.
It was like a slap in the face.
The sketch was of a man, skilfully conjured in brown pencil, his features alive with laughter, mischief. A chill gripped her spine. This was not just any man. It was Jim. Her father. That wavy hair. The dimples. Those eyes. No mistake. Where was this done? When? Maggie knew him? Why hadn’t she said anything? Nina was suddenly on her feet, walking up and down, eyes glued to the image in her hands. The man looked about 40 – yet her father had disappeared at age 29, more than 20 years ago. And he had died soon afterwards, or so they believed. Of course they believed. Heath had found him at the bottom of that cave. She had been there, just over two years ago. A dried skeleton, his neck snapped. There had even been an inquest.
Then her eye fell on Maggie’s tiny lettering at the bottom of the sketch. Man at Café – 2017. She began to tremble. This year? A wild hope ?ared in her heart. But no, no. Calm down, she told herself. Absent-minded Maggie must have got the date wrong or the sketch must have been drawn from memory, or from a photo. Still, Maggie always sketched from life as far as she knew. She had to talk to her.
Nina ran to the phone in the kitchen, her ?ngers fumbling Izzy’s number. Out of range. Of course she was fucking out of range. It would be ages before Izzy had any reception. Nina knew she would have to wait to grill Maggie at The Springs. She stood there, the sketch in one hand, the beeping receiver in the other. It made no sense. Maggie had been to The Springs three, four times? And she had never mentioned meeting Jim, knowing Jim. She hadn’t even uttered his name in passing. Bizarre. Nina blinked at the sketch. Now something else seemed to demand her attention. She tore her eyes away from the face and took in the deft lines that recreated the café in which the man sat. An espresso machine. The table with a coffee cup in the foreground. A cup and . . . and a new-style mobile phone. This was a recent sketch.
Nina slammed the phone down and hurried out to the verandah. She had to tell Heath. No-one else could help her make sense of this. But the ute was gone.
Not quite 7 am. In 20 minutes her life had been turned upside down. Could it be her father? Nina walked slowly back to the bedroom. What to do? The truth was she could do nothing – yet. She would have to wait hours till she could ask Maggie the hundreds of questions that were crowding her mind.
She closed the sketchbook and climbed once more into bed. If only she had found it earlier Heath would be here to . . . to . . . she wasn’t sure what, but he would make her feel calmer. See things more clearly. Why did he have to go when he had only just returned?
Nina huddled under the covers, curling her body into those same indentations Heath had left. But after a few seconds she moved. The ?t was not quite right.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him.
It would be easy not to notice him. Just a small thing. Dappled with dried bracken and dirt.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Her baby’s fingers look like small furled leaves and Louise lifts them to her lips to kiss.