“I think we can turn this into something really special.”
Hannie Reynolds held a garish 1970s ring up to the light streaming through the window into her friend’s living room. From outside, a calming sea breeze wafted in, and the sounds and smells of an Australian beach summer were evident. The squawk of seagulls. The delighted chatter of children. Cars hovering on the street nearby waiting for that elusive, available car park. The salty tang of fish and chips in the air from a nearby takeaway. Hannie’s old friend Beck was lucky enough to live a few steps from the beach at Semaphore, and Hannie had driven down for her cottage in the Adelaide Hills to see Beck and her new baby, Bella.
And to consult.
She stood close to the window, using the light from outside to illuminate a vintage piece of jewellery Beck had recently been given. The stone in the centre, a rose quartz, was badly scratched and had lost its lustre. Set around it was a circle of tiny diamonds, dull now, and the gold band had split at its thinnest part. It appeared to have been abandoned to a jewellery box for more than a few years.
“You really think you can make this old thing into something beautiful?” Beck asked as Bella nuzzled against her breast.
“Oh, most definitely,” Hannie replied.
Beck smiled. “That is a relief. I didn’t want to be ungrateful when Nana gave it to me, but it’s not really me, is it?”
“No, it’s not really you, but I’m sure I can turn it into something that you’ll love.”
Beck was one of Hannie’s oldest friends and Hannie knew her tastes. Beck’s simple white tank top had a splodge down the front. Her wraparound, tie-dyed skirt skimmed her ankles and she wore a silver ring on her long toe. Her face was bare of makeup, and not just because she’d had a baby just a week before. Beck was an original earth mother, right down to her dreadlocks and her nose ring.
“The stones are really cool, but it’s not the kind of thing I would wear, you know?”
Hannie chuckled. “You think?”
“When Nana gave it to me, I was touched, don’t get me wrong. It was a beautiful thing for her to do, to celebrate Bella’s birth. Her first grandchild and everything. I was thinking you could create something new out of it, something more me, more us, that I can give to Bella when she’s older.”
Bella gurgled in Beck’s arms.
“I can’t think of her getting older when she’s just been born. Why can’t they stay this small and adorable forever?” Hannie walked across the kitchen to Beck, and ran a finger over Bella’s smooth cheek, as soft as a feather.
“She is the best thing that’s happened to me,” Beck sniffed.
Hannie sighed. “Let’s make something special to celebrate her arrival, shall we? Is there anything specific you had in mind or would you like want me to work my creative magic and surprise you?”
“Honestly, with the baby brain I have at the moment, I’m going to leave this one all up to you. You know me. I trust you completely. Surprise me.”
Hannie thought how lucky she was to have such support from friends like Beck. For years, Hannie had indulged her creative streak by making costume jewellery with chunky resin beads and leather straps, cute rings and earrings and brooches made from old china, as a hobby while she worked in a bank. But in the past eighteen months, her life had changed. She had decided to throw herself into her own business, to see if she could really make a go of it on her own. She’d given up her small house in the inner city and had moved back to the Adelaide Hills to a cottage on her Aunt Mandy’s property at Reynolds Ridge, which neighboured the orchard she’d grown up on. The timing of Mandy’s offer had been perfect, as the cottage was the perfect size for a new workshop.
Mandy needed a bit of help around the property these days, so the new living arrangements were a match made in Adelaide Hills heaven. Hannie was now her own boss, running a new business repurposing old jewellery, pieces that were once unloved, unfashionable, unwanted, into something fresh and new. She was fulfilled creatively. She loved being near her aunt. She was her own boss and her big old Labrador Ted loved the wide open spaces and the creek at the bottom of the valley. He especially loved the creek when it ran fast and full after the rains.
Hannie slipped Beck’s ring into a purple velvet pouch, and tugged at the string to pull it closed it. She slipped it into her workbag.
“I’d love to surprise you. I already have some ideas brewing. Leave it with me.” Hannie looped the strap of her workbag over her shoulder. “Now, promise you’ll call me if you need anything? I’m totally free to come and sit with Bella while you get some sleep. Or make some of your organic muesli or weave some more hemp clothing. Whatever it is you do in your spare time.”
Beck laughed. “I promise.”
Before leaving, Hannie made sure to kiss Bella one more time on her delectable, chubby cheeks.
“You be safe up there in the hills,” Beck said. “I always worry about you, you know. We’re safe down here near the beach, and the sea breezes cool us at night. But… on a hot day, when the winds blow…”
Hannie slipped an arm around Beck’s shoulder. “You know me. I’m so prepared I’m like a girl scout. I’ve done all the fire service training. I have batteries for my portable radio in case we have power outages. I have bottled water and beef jerky stashed away in case of a zombie apocalypse. And you know I grew up on the property right next door. I’m realistic about what it’s like up there in summer and the risks.”
Beck hugged Hannie. “I know all that in my head. But we both know what high bushfire danger days can be like.”
“I’m careful, I promise. I’m prepared to get out early if I have to. I’ll just have to make sure I can convince Ted to get in the car with me and we’ll be fine.”
“How is he doing being cooped up after his knee surgery? I didn’t even know that dog’s had anterior cruciate ligaments like people do.”
The two friends walked down the long hallway out the front door to Hannie’s car in the driveway. Beck had Bella in her arms and as they walked, she rocked her from side to side. Hannie opened the passenger door of her car and slung her bag on to the seat.
“And who would have thought they rupture just like humans?” Hannie shook her head in disbelief at what Ted had been through. “He is missing his walks so badly. When I get home, I bet he’ll be waiting there in the kitchen with his lead hanging out of his mouth. But he’s not supposed to do much of anything until his knee heals. And it’s too hot. If I let him wander he’ll be in that dry creek bed before I know it, digging up who knows what was buried down there last winter.”
Hannie gave Beck one last hug and gave Bella one more kiss. “I’ll see you two very soon. When’s Mark back from the mines?” Beck’s husband worked ten days on and eight days off in the state’s mining industry to the north. Hannie didn’t know how Beck managed on her own, but she had, for years.
“He’s coming home this Friday. I can’t wait.”
“Give him a kiss from me, will you?”
Beck grinned. “Oh, I will. You drive safe.”
On the trip home, from the beach in the west, up Port Road into the city, Hannie kept a watchful eye on the sky in the distance. It was hot outside, about forty degrees, and she had her car’s air-conditioner cranking as high as it would go. Her four-wheel drive had a big cabin and it had heated up sitting in Beck’s driveway. At home, in the hills, it was usually cooler, unless a north wind was blowing.
From the Adelaide plains, there was an almost uninterrupted view up to the hills in the east, the ranges purple and light grey and shimmering, the television transmission towers at the highest point, Mt. Lofty, a reference point for the city.
And that uninterrupted view meant Hannie saw the plume of smoke at about the same time it was announced on the radio.
Her heart leapt in her throat. She fired up her Bluetooth phone to call her Aunt Mandy. She tapped her fingers on the steering while she waited. And waited.
Finally, the call rang out and clicked through to leave a message. “Mandy, it’s me. You’ve probably heard the news. I’m on my way. I’m keeping an eye on it. I’ve got the radio on in the car and I’m about forty-five minutes away. Call me back.”
Her aunt lived in the bigger of two stone houses on the twenty-five hectare property at Reynolds Ridge. Mandy’s was a two-storey place, thick-walled and historic, with a heritage listing that recognised its importance to the history of Reynolds’ Ridge. It had been an inn in the late nineteenth century, catering to traders crossing the hills and taking goods down into the plains and the city of Adelaide. It was a big place and Mandy rattled around in it, but she didn’t want to live anywhere else. Hannie lived in a small stone cottage only a couple of minutes’ walk away from the main house. It was a converted barn, with sandstone walls and a restored galvanised iron roof; there were four big rooms inside, one of which was her studio. It was a beautiful part of the world. It was undulating farming country—apples, pears, and cherries, and the orchards and occasional vineyards were surrounded by untamed national parks, which made the entire area vulnerable to fire. Whether started by summer storms and lightning or, unfortunately, arsonists, bushfires were a risk, but they were a price Hannie and her aunt were willing to pay for living where they did.
She took off too fast when a traffic light turned green and had to remind herself to take a deep breath. She didn’t have to worry about her aunt. Mandy was probably outside feeding the chooks or getting her goat, Zelda, into her pen. Hannie’s septuagenarian aunt had lived in the hills her entire life, knew the precautions one had to take, was sensible enough not to take a risk. But a little thought niggled at Hannie. Mandy’s health. While still smart as a whip, and never too shy for a wisecrack aimed at those who perturbed her, she had become physically weaker. While Hannie had noticed her aunt’s hands starting to shake, her gait starting to stiffen, the last thing Mandy would do when it came to her own health was listen to her niece, no matter how loved.
“Take a deep breath,” Hannie told herself. Mandy would hear the message eventually.
All Hannie had to do was drive across the city and up into the hills, make sure Mandy was safe, check that Ted hadn’t chewed everything in the kitchen where she’d blockaded him during his recovery from the surgery, continue listening to the radio, and stay calm. Fires were often caught early and extinguished before they did any major damage. The State’s Country Fire Service volunteers, or national park firefighters or even homeowners themselves worked quickly when a fire was reported. And, sometimes, if they were very lucky, a cool change would sweep in and bring clouds laden with rain.
Hannie could only cross her fingers and head for the hills.
Half an hour later, Hannie hit Reynolds Ridge and, as she drove through the small township, she checked all the shop front windows to see who’d closed up in preparation for being called to go and fight the fires. Many of the locals were volunteers with the Country Fire Service and when their pagers went off, signalling they were needed, they quickly closed up shop, turned off tractors, and stopped whatever else they were doing to get into uniform and hit the trucks.
She was relieved to see A-frame advertising banners still on the footpath and a rainbow flag fluttered outside of Mel and Kaz’s Organic Café on the main street. She exhaled. They were all good signs. She slowed, flirting with the idea of pulling in to park on the side of the road and grabbing a coffee, but decided she should get home to see Mandy, since she hadn’t been able to reach her on the phone.
That was when she spotted the “For Lease” sign in the shop next door to the café. She checked her rear vision mirror and slowed again so she could get a good look. It was almost like a row cottage, with both premises sharing an adjoining wall, and wrought iron work decorating the corrugated iron veranda like lace on a skirt. It had big front windows, and a door inset from the footpath. She was familiar with the property, but the “For Lease” sign was new.
She shook her head and sighed. It was her dream to have her own shop, a place in which she could combine her workshop with a retail space. She had envisaged it in her head for years—she could decorate the windows with vintage pieces of jeweller’s equipment and items she had created. She thought Saturday morning classes for children might also be a way to bring in some extra, steady income.
At this point, her dreams were still dreams. As she accelerated up to the speed limit, she tucked those ideas in the back of her mind.
A few minutes later, Hannie pulled into the property and instead of taking the track to her own cottage, she swung her vehicle sharply left and drove the gravelled driveway to the rear of her aunt’s house. Despite her hopes that it might be cooler in the hills, it was scorching and the eucalyptus smell of smoke lingered in the air.
Hannie turned the key and the throaty engine quietened. She leaned across to grab her workbag, opened the door, and closed it behind her.
Which was when she spotted Mandy lying near the back steps, one arm raised in the air, waving weakly.
Her heart skipped a beat. “Oh, god, Mandy.” Hannie bolted to her aunt’s side. “What on earth have you done?” Hannie looked her over. Mandy was lying on her back on the grass by the back slate steps, one leg raised up and propped gingerly on the lowest rung for elevation.
“I twisted my bloody ankle on the steps. I was watering the pot plants. It’s so damn hot they’ve all wilted. And then, I don’t know… I lost my footing and took a tumble. I feel like a damn idiot.”
Hannie’s stomach plummeted. One more sign that something wasn’t right with her aunt.
“Do you hurt anywhere else?” Hannie scanned Mandy from her elevated ankle to her head. She couldn’t see any blood on her aunt’s face. Her eyes were wide and alert, although there was a wince of pain when Mandy tried to prop herself up by her elbows.
“Don’t move,” Hannie ordered. She gently pressed a hand to Mandy’s shoulder.
“It’s just my ankle.” Hannie moved to the leg Mandy had propped on the step and gently tugged on her trouser leg, raising it. Above the line of her ankle sock, there was already swelling.
“Okay, I’m going to—”
From behind there was a screech of tyre on gravel. Hannie whipped her head up. A white ute had abruptly come to a halt in the drive and the passenger door whipped open.
“Who’s that?” Hannie asked.
It was a man. One with long legs and those long legs were carrying him at great speed, in a few huge strides, to Hannie and her aunt. A baseball cap shadowed his face.
“You okay, Mandy?” He knelt at Mandy’s side, studied her face for a moment, and then parted her clenched eyelids so he could check her pupils.
“Who the hell are you?” Hannie demanded.
“You saying you don’t remember me?” Man with long legs didn’t meet her eyes, but continued to examine Mandy.
“I’m fine, love, really,” Mandy tutted.
What the—Hannie’s head darted up. She looked across Mandy’s prostrate form to the man playing doc with her much-loved aunt.
He took off his baseball cap and shot a quick look in her direction.
His blond hair was short, his jaw strong, and his eyes as blue as the summer sky. When he looked up at her and raised an eyebrow, she felt a shot of something from her toes to her teeth. It was a bigger adrenalin buzz than she’d felt when she’d seen her aunt lying there helpless.
End of Excerpt