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Welcome to Wirralong
Amber McGuinness gave a weary smile as she drove past the welcome sign on the outskirts of her new town. She sure could do with a welcome somewhere, and if she hadn’t just spent four days behind the wheel driving the three-thousand kilometres from Cairns, she’d almost be tempted to fish out the roll of black tape she knew she had packed somewhere amongst the boxes and bags stuffed into the car and turn that zero into a one.
But that little impulse could wait, because, more than anything, all Wirralong’s newest resident wanted to do was find the house she’d agreed to rent from an agency listing online; the little house with an office at the front and living space at the back. It was small and simple, but it came furnished and would provide her with both a business address and somewhere to live. Best of all, it was cheap, and cheap was all Amber could afford for the foreseeable future.
So, first things first, she’d pick up the keys and stretch her legs while she unpacked the sum total of her belongings from her jam-packed car. Then she’d collapse into bed and sleep for a week. Or at least until she felt human again.
Nearer the town itself the landscape was changing, the wide-open paddocks filled with winter crops that she’d passed for the last hundred kilometres or so giving way to a gum tree–lined verge, punctuated every now and then with old weatherboard houses with peeling paint and tin roofs, and wide verandahs laden with overstuffed armchairs. So different from the palm trees and Queenslanders on stilts she was used to in Cairns. An old man sitting on one verandah raised his hand as she passed. She waved back. A friendly town, she decided, swallowing down a wave of nervous anticipation tinged with hope, and crossing fingers and toes that this move would work out. After the barely veiled animosity and snide remarks that had been directed her way in her hometown for the last twelve months, a friendly town would make for a welcome change.
She passed the local agricultural supply store, a farm machinery outlet brimming with brightly coloured tractors on display, and a garage, and then she was over the hump of a small bridge and onto the bustling high street that bisected the town proper. Quaint, she thought, taking in the two-storey shops and businesses that lined it and that looked like they harked back to an earlier century. And then she saw the landmark she’d been looking for—a big hotel with a wraparound balcony on the corner opposite a green park with a central rotunda—and she knew she was close. She pulled into a parking spot and opened the door, only to encounter a wall of heat so dry it almost sucked the air out of her lungs.
Whoa, she thought, having second thoughts about stepping out of the blessed air-conditioned comfort of her car, so this was late summer in Wirralong? When she’d left Cairns, there’d been a cyclone swirling ominously off the coast, and the humidity had been so high you could almost scoop up the moisture-laden air with a spoon. This air seemed to want to shrivel you to a crisp on the spot.
But what choice did she have? She clambered stiff-leggedly out, catching a whiff of freshly baked goods coming from a bakery on the nearby corner. Even despite the heat of the day, her stomach rumbled. How long since she’d eaten? Not since she’d stopped for petrol hours ago; she’d been too excited at the prospect of finally reaching her destination to stop again. The thought of a sandwich and maybe a loaf of freshly baked bread to go on with made her mouth water.
Just beyond the bakery, she could see the sign for the real estate agency. She glanced up at the glaring sun, still high, and made for the shade of the verandah. It might be mid-afternoon but still there was a healthy trade going in and out the door of the bakery and if that wasn’t a good sign, she didn’t know what was. As soon as she picked up her keys, she’d be back to line up herself.
The estate agency was housed in another of the quaint timber two-storey buildings that lined the main road, and inside it looked every bit as original as the outside. Everything from floorboards to chairs were constructed of timber, while a wide counter that looked like a slab cut from a massive gum tree divided the room in two. On top of the counter sat an old-fashioned index card box, a blotter with a pen attached on a chain, and a bell. If there was a computer anywhere on the premises, it had to be hidden in the little room through the door to one side.
She rang the bell, heard a, ‘Yoohoo, be right there,’ and twenty seconds later a woman bustled out to welcome her.
‘What brings you to Wirralong, lovey?’ she asked, once the two women had identified themselves. Mrs Marsh, the sixty-something property manager, had a kindly face—another good omen? Amber knew it was curiosity rather than nosiness that prompted the enquiry. Being a stranger in town, she knew to be ready for the odd question. Not that she was about to give anyone her life story, mind; this was about a brand-new start where nobody knew her past.
‘I was looking for a change,’ Amber said, practising the lines she’d rehearsed, ‘and Wirralong looked like a nice place to live.’ There was no need to add that Amber had closed her eyes and stuck a pin in a map and Wirralong was where it had landed.
The older woman nodded sagely as she flicked through the index file on the counter, pulling out an envelope that Amber could see bore her name. ‘Looking for a change of pace, I get that,’ she said, as she held the envelope upside down and let a set of chunky keys fall into her hand. ‘We get all kinds of tree-changers here, escaping from the big city. Like I say to the croquet girls, who can blame them? We’ve got everything you could possibly want here in town. There’s a hairdressing and beauty salon, an award-winning bakery and a hotel that serves up the biggest and best chicken parmies this side of the border, or even a posh steak if you want it. We’ve got one of those fancy city-style coffee shops to give all the city types passing through another reason to stop, and there’s even a wedding business out of town now going gangbusters.’ She looked up at Amber with narrowed eyes. ‘Are you married?’
Amber held up her ringless left hand, glad that the sun had obliterated any trace of the ring that was once there. ‘No.’ And with her engagement imploding the way it had, there was little likelihood of her needing a wedding venue any time soon. Frankly, it would be a wonder if anyone ever trusted her again, let alone wanted to marry her. ‘I’m strictly single.’
Mrs Marsh tut-tutted, as she handed the keys over. ‘Never say never, is my motto. We’ve had a spate of weddings here in Wirralong in the last few years. Some of the girls in the croquet club think there must be something in the water.’ She put a paper on the blotter and pushed it towards Amber. ‘Sign here, if you would, to acknowledge receipt of the keys.’
Amber picked up the pen and signed her name. ‘And is that what you think, that there’s something in the water?’ She wasn’t really interested in the wedding angle, but anything that gave her insight into the town and its residents could only help Wirralong’s newest resident find her feet in her new home. Maybe she should think about offering a two-for-one deal for income tax return preparation for newlyweds?
The property manager’s eyes darted each way before she leaned closer, as if she was about to impart a major secret. ‘It’s not the water, in my book,’ she whispered, nodding. ‘But it is a kind of magic.’
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ the woman continued. ‘Not any of that funny woo-woo kind of magic, mind, but the magic that people bring with them. Wirralong was a dusty town losing its young folk to the city and shrinking the way of country towns everywhere, when out of nowhere these bright young things appear and before you know it, there’s new businesses popping up everywhere, a mood of enthusiasm spreading amongst the townsfolk, and romance is suddenly in the air.’ She sniffed authoritatively, as if she’d offered all the evidence that was needed to prove her case. ‘Well, it has to be a kind of magic, don’t you think?’
Amber smiled. She’d long ago stopped believing in magic, and her view of romance had taken a decided turn for the worse recently, but that wasn’t what Mrs Marsh wanted to hear right now. ‘It sure sounds like something special is going on.’
‘It truly does,’ the older woman said, peering through the reading glasses perched low on her nose to check the paperwork was all in order. ‘What is it you do, lovey? Do you have any plans to start up a business? The property’s got a nice little office space at the front. I’ve often thought it would be perfect for a dressmaker or craft studio.’
‘I do have plans, actually,’ Amber said, although none of them concerned anything resembling handicrafts. ‘I’m an accountant.’
The older woman’s jaw dropped, before she recovered with a spluttered, ‘Well, I never did. Just like old Mr Abbott in that case. Did you know that?’
Amber shook her head. The advertisement had given no hint of its former resident, although given the set-up of the little home with office out front, Amber had figured it must have been a lawyer or accountant or similar professional. ‘No.’
‘Well,’ Mrs Marsh said, shaking her head, ‘just wait until I tell the girls at croquet about this. If that’s not magic, you turning up out of the blue like this, I’ll eat my hat.’
Amber smiled as she jiggled the heavy keys in her hand. ‘I’m sure there’s no need for that. Thanks, Mrs Marsh. I’d better go get myself settled in.’
‘Call me Enid, lovey. Everyone does.’ She waved Amber goodbye. ‘Oh, it might be a little dusty inside, but you’ll soon put it to rights, I’m sure.’
Amber didn’t put much stock in the warning as she left the office. The photos online had looked fine. Armed with the keys and directions to her new home, Amber made a slight detour. She swished aside the fly strips hanging from the open bakery door, only to be assailed full on by the warmth and aroma of freshly baked goods. Inside the shop, the counters and shelves were crammed with slices and buns, custard tarts and other treats, while loaves of bread jostled with bags of rolls and croissants. Glass shelves held an admittedly depleted selection of wraps and sandwiches and a warmer on the back counter held an assortment of pies, pasties and sausage rolls, while in the corner sat a proper barista coffee machine that whooshed and hissed out steam as a woman worked a lever. It was an old-fashioned country bakery, but one that came with mod cons. Her stomach growled in appreciation while she waited in the queue. The entire shop was a famished, road-weary woman’s dream.
‘Can I help you?’ said a smiling woman behind the counter when it was Amber’s turn to be served. She had a shock of bright pink hair, a stud that winked in her nose and the most outrageous cat’s-eye eyeliner Amber had ever seen.
Amber smiled back at the woman. ‘I think I just died and went to heaven.’
The woman tilted her head, still smiling but looking a little confused. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Sorry,’ Amber said, smiling back, ‘I’m just feeling a bit spoilt for choice.’ She scanned the counters again and gave her order—a salad wrap and iced coffee to go on with now, a pastie slice for dinner, and a loaf of bread. That should keep her going until she could get herself to a supermarket to stock up on basic supplies. Mind you, if these items tasted anywhere near as good as they smelled, she’d soon be back for more.
There was a sign on the back of the door as she went out, West Wirralong Netball Club Needs You!
Amber suppressed a smile as she sat in the rotunda in the park outside, taking a minute to enjoy her wrap and coffee. For just one split second she’d actually considered the poster stuck to the bakery door. After all, joining a club or two was always a good way to meet people. But how long was it since she’d played netball? Only about a hundred years. West Wirralong Netball Club couldn’t be that desperate.
One street back and the high street vibe turned seriously residential. Low-slung cottages sat behind rose-lined timber fences, rocking chairs waiting patiently on verandahs for someone to use them, potted colour hanging from eaves. It was a good restful look, but at the same time a little concerning. Amber had been hoping for passing trade to notice her shingle and drum up business, but even just one street back from the high street the mood was quiet. How was she going to get noticed here?
But it was too late for regrets. She was here and she just had to make the best of it. She stood on the path outside the little office-cum-house she’d rented and made a vow right then and there, that she would do everything in her power to make this work. She couldn’t ask or expect any more of herself, but she’d give it nothing less than her best shot. Armed with resolve, she negotiated her way past tangled rose bushes seriously in need of a prune and took a deep breath. She was about to open the door to her future.
It took a few jiggles of the big key before she heard the hard clunk of the old lock releasing and she could turn the handle, but the door didn’t budge. With a concerted shove of her shoulder, Amber was inside.
And instantly underwhelmed.
A little dusty inside?
Dust motes danced in the shaft of light from the open door intruding on the musty air, and those that weren’t dancing had seemed to settle on every stick of furniture in sight. Some time ago, by the thickness of the coating. How long was it since the place had been cleaned? Probably right before they’d taken the photos to put on the website.
She wandered through the office and tiny cottage behind, feeling more and more dispirited. So much for a fresh start.
Amber squeezed her eyes shut against the disappointment and the threatening prickle of tears and tried to rationalise. Okay, so it was a little dusty, or even a lot, and yes, she was bone-tired. Of course, all she wanted to do was unpack the car and flop into bed, but it was nothing that a couple of hours of work couldn’t make a dent in. After all, it was still early. She might as well go to bed physically exhausted as well as mentally. Besides, she sure as hell didn’t want to wake up to a mess.
Three hours later and Amber unpacked the last of her belongings from the car and took a moment to take stock of what she’d achieved. She’d dusted, swept, mopped and scoured until her stomach rumbled and reminded her that it was well past dinner time. But her hard work had paid off. The office at front looked like a place she wouldn’t mind working, the visitor chairs somewhere clients wouldn’t mind sitting, and the bedroom looked inviting now it was cleaned, and the bed made up with her own linen and duvet. Relieved of their thick grey layer of grime, the timber floorboards throughout now glowed a deep golden colour, and the simple white kitchen cabinetry looked fresh and welcoming. In the corner of the room, the old-fashioned fridge had, against all odds, switched on and now was busily humming itself and its meagre contents cool.
‘Welcome home,’ she said, hands on hips, as she surveyed her new domain. This was more like it. Now she could think about getting cleaned up, having something to eat and then falling blissfully into bed.
Her eyes fell on the dining table and two chairs. Okay, maybe she wasn’t quite done yet. She rummaged around in the boxes she was still to unpack until she found it—the cheery red-and-white-checked tablecloth that reminded her of an Italian trattoria she’d once eaten at in Rome, which she’d packed specifically for this tiny table for two—and it was perfect.
She’d found an old milk bottle in the cupboard under the sink. Wow, how long was it since she’d seen a milk bottle? But it would do. She half filled it with water, before grabbing her scissors and heading to the rose bushes that filled the small front garden. Five minutes later she was back, stripping leaves and trimming stems until she had a small bouquet of colourful roses as her table centrepiece. She pressed her nose into the bunch, the fragrance more than enough to brighten her spirits.
So, okay, maybe her first impressions of her new home weren’t great, but she was feeling better and better about this move all the time.
It would work.
She’d make it work.
She had to.
End of Excerpt