The strip of bitumen stretched ahead through the late afternoon gloom, fringed with straggly trees. Between the trees were glimpses of empty paddocks but there’d been no sign of the red mailbox, and Joanna was starting to get anxious. What if she’d missed it?
Where was the piece of paper with Chris’s mud-map? In her handbag, maybe, or somewhere among the clutter of shopping in the back seat.
She couldn’t remember what she’d done with it. Should she stop and look for it? No, better keep going. This had to be the right road. But what if she’d misunderstood his directions? She could imagine being marooned on this lonely road, hungry and cold, in the growing darkness. Would Chris come searching for them? How would he know where to look?
Joanna glanced at the little girl strapped in beside her and took a careful breath, stifling her fears. ‘Mm?’
‘Mummy, has Chris got a pony?’
‘A pony?’ The question came as a surprise, but Joanna tried to answer lightly. ‘I don’t know, lovely. He hasn’t mentioned one to me. I guess you’ll have to wait and see.’
Mia nodded, apparently satisfied. Joanna concentrated on the road again, easing her grip on the steering wheel, straightening the cramped fingers of one hand, then the other, then lifting her left foot away from the clutch and flexing her ankle.
Two hours ago she’d been waiting for the school bell to signal the end of term. Eager to get on her way, she hadn’t waited for Marshall’s speech and the dreaded sticky cake that Mollie had warned her was an end-of-term ritual. But Mia had been slow coming out of the primary school, and loading up the car and collecting last-minute shopping had taken far longer than she’d expected. If she didn’t find the red mailbox soon, it would be too dark to recognise Chris’s place.
What would happen if she drove straight past Chris’s place? Where would they end up? How much petrol was there in the tank? If she broke down, how far was she from anyone who would help her?
Mia was reading, quite oblivious to her mother’s fears.
Had it been such a good idea to agree to come to the farm? When Chris had suggested it, the visit had seemed like the natural next step in their relationship. It was only now, in the fading light of this autumn evening, that grey doubts were creeping into her heart.
Mia stirred, looking up from her book. ‘What’ll we do on the farm?’
This was a good question, and Joanna tried to answer it, but in truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never visited a farm, let alone stayed on one. ‘Chris will be there.’
Mia considered this. ‘Chris is nice,’ she said.
‘Yes, he is.’ Joanna went on. ‘I’ll be cooking for the builders. And Chris.’ She managed a smile for her daughter. ‘And us, of course.’
Mia smiled back, and resumed reading.
The realisation that she had no clear idea what she was letting herself — and Mia — in for was beginning to frighten Joanna. They were travelling into unknown territory, to be with a man she hardly knew, miles from anywhere.
Something registered on her peripheral vision and she eased her foot off the accelerator. That could have been a red mailbox. If she’d blinked she’d have missed it. Should she go back? Turning on this narrow strip of bitumen wasn’t going to be easy and she’d feel silly if she was wrong.
Mia sensed the change in their speed and looked up. ‘Are we there?’
‘Don’t know …’ Joanna applied the brake carefully and came to a stop. The mailbox, or whatever, was long gone. She sat for a moment breathing deeply, then cautiously began making the three-point turn before slowly heading back.
There was no sign of the mailbox. Had she imagined it?
But no, there it was: a red-painted drum mounted on a pole, just as Chris had described it. There was a number on a shiny metal tag fixed to the post, but she couldn’t remember what that number ought to be. Where was that piece of paper?
She slowed still more and bumped onto the weedy verge. Something scraped the underside as the car came to a stop. Mia closed her book and looked around, but there was nothing but grass and trees. And the mailbox.
Joanna turned off the engine, unfastened her seatbelt and got out. Her knees were trembling. If there was any mail in the box she’d see who it was addressed to and know if this was the right place. But when she reached inside the dark interior there was nothing but spider webs. Could they be red-backs? Was that one running up her arm? She shuddered and dashed the sticky webs from her sleeve, feeling her mouth curl with disgust.
Mia was watching her with bright-eyed curiosity. ‘Is this it?’ She craned to peer through the windscreen. ‘I can’t see Chris’s house.’
In the grey silence Joanna could hear another vehicle. Was it coming from the road, or the farm?
A little cloud of dust materialised along a barely-visible track through the trees that dotted the paddock, coming closer. The car was a dark red, sporty-looking thing, blurred with dust. It slowed to bump over the steel grid embedded in the gateway and come to a stop alongside her Mazda. For a wild moment Joanna thought Chris might have known in some magical way that she was here and come to guide her to the house, but it wasn’t his vehicle and she swallowed her disappointment.
The driver started to get out. Joanna backed nervously, ready to get into her car and close the door, but the young man stopped and waited beside his red car, smiled and raised a hand in greeting.
‘Can I help you at all?’ His smile was so open and friendly that she felt silly for her caution.
‘I’m looking for Chris Youngman’s place.’ She was embarrassed to hear the tremor in her voice and cleared her throat. ‘Is this it?’
He nodded, his smile widening. ‘Sure is!’ He turned his head and waved at the track winding through the scattered trees, the track he’d just driven down. He looked young, hardly out of school, and radiant with good health. He was wearing sharply-pressed jeans and a white tee-shirt so clean it glowed. His hair was wet, face newly-shaven, and a whiff of aftershave confirmed her impression that he’d just showered. Who was he? He looked as if he was headed for a celebration. Of course, this was Friday, the end of the working week; he’d be off somewhere with his girlfriend.
‘Are you Joanna?’ He’d left his engine running and the sound of the exhaust was a pleasant bass accompaniment.
How did he know? ‘Yes.’
He grinned. ‘You’ll be taking over the cooking?’
‘That’ll have to be an improvement.’ He laughed, then remembered his manners. ‘I’m Jesse.’
‘Jesse,’ she said.
‘Jesse Woods.’ He got back into his car. ‘See you next week, then. Monday morning, bright and early.’ He reached up to reel down his seatbelt, snapped it shut.
With a small shock it came home to her that this expedition wasn’t just about her and Chris. The builders would be involved as well. They were the reason why she was here. This young man was nothing like any builder she’d imagined, but he must be one of them. In spite of his youth there was an adult poise about him, some quality of grace.
‘Where’s the house? Is it far?’
‘Just follow the track,’ he said. ‘You can’t go wrong.’ He pulled his door shut, but instead of moving away he wound down his window. ‘Watch out for the sheep!’ he said. He gave her a little wave, put his car into gear and accelerated away.
‘Sheep!’ Mia sounded surprised.
Much heartened, but sad to see him go, Joanna got back into her own car and edged cautiously over the grid. The wheels jolted over the rails and rattled her teeth but it didn’t last long; then they were across. She headed along the faint track where a hint of the red car’s dust hung in the still air.
In the dull light a flock of twenty-eight parrots were like streaks of green neon shrieking over the track ahead. They’d no sooner passed than she came upon the sheep, the same colour as the ground, almost invisible. Just as well Jesse had warned her, or she might have ploughed right through them. They were standing in a mob across the track, staring at her with strange, yellow eyes. One or two of them bleated. They didn’t seem to be going anywhere so she bipped the horn and after a few minutes they took off in a scatter of dust, feet rattling on the dry ground. Finally the last of them was clear and she could go on.
There was still no sign of a house, but from a dense planting of trees a yellow truck emerged. This would be more of the builders, leaving after their week’s work. As they passed her the driver tooted the horn and one of them waved. She waved back.
They must be almost at the house. Joanna felt her heart beat faster. Now that she’d found the right place she felt the beginnings of optimism. Chris would be waiting for her. If the rest of the team were anything like Jesse, cooking for them would be a pleasure.
Everything would be all right. This adventure would turn out just the way she hoped. On his home territory Chris would be just as steadfast and affectionate as he was in town. There was nothing to worry about.