The sunlight streaming in, laying its warmth like a blessing on everything in the shabby room, seemed to Joanna like a visual manifestation of her happiness.
She and Chris had worked together to prepare a lavish breakfast of cereal, eggs, sausages, tomatoes and toast, a feast that had left Mia bemused, accustomed as she was to just a bowl of cereal. But Joanna felt like celebrating, and Chris was a man who did hard physical work and probably needed the calories.
‘That was good,’ Chris said, pushing his plate aside. He smiled at her, a tight smile tinged with anxiety. ‘How was …’
She read his concern. ‘Last night? It was lovely, Chris.’
‘All right? You sure?’
Joanna reached over and laid her hand on his. ‘Scout’s honour. I couldn’t be happier.’
His smile lost its nervous edge, transforming into one of sheer happiness. ‘That’s okay then.’
Mia was staring at him, her mouth open.
‘It’s okay, Mia,’ Joanna said. ‘Grown-up talk.’ She turned her attention back to Chris. ‘What have you got planned for today?’ It was Saturday, and he might have arranged some kind of a treat.
‘Have to feed the sheep,’ he said. ‘Weekends don’t matter out here.’
Joanna readjusted her expectations. She had no idea what feeding the sheep entailed. She’d had the idea they fed themselves. ‘How long does that take?’
‘Just an hour or so.’
‘What do sheep eat?’ Mia wanted to know. ‘Don’t they eat grass? Where do you get the grass from?’
Chris laughed at her, but not unkindly. ‘Sheep eat grass if there is any,’ he said. ‘This time of the year there’s precious little.’ Mia was still regarding him with wide-eyed curiosity. ‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘You can come with me in the truck. If you like?’ Mia nodded vigorously. ‘Okay. Finish your breakfast and get washed up and we’ll get going.’
When the sound of the truck faded Joanna started clearing up. Breakfast was the worst meal of the day for mess, what with sticky crumbs and greasy frying pans, but this morning she was feeling too euphoric to mind. Idly, she wondered whether Chris believed a woman’s place was in the home. He hadn’t suggested that she come with them on the sheep-feeding expedition. Not that she minded: she needed time on her own to digest this novel situation and there was no better aid to meditation than the routines of housework.
From the little she’d gleaned so far, Chris’s mother was a real homebody, and that would be what he was accustomed to. She didn’t credit him, lovely though he was, with any great sophistication. Like most of the men she’d known, he didn’t find it easy to talk about his feelings, and she’d have to make allowance for that. Up till now she’d been winging it on intuition, and that had worked well enough. But there were bound to be surprises in store, not all of them pleasant, and she’d need to be ready for them.
She smiled to herself. There’d been one surprise already this morning. She’d woken up in the unfamiliar tangle of warm limbs, and while she’d been sleepily reminding herself of who she was, where and with whom, Chris had suddenly freed himself from her arms and without a word leapt naked as a gazelle out of bed. For a second she’d felt forlorn and abandoned; then she realised that he’d gone outside into the cold. When she sat up and looked through the window she could see him standing on the edge of the veranda, peeing copiously into the garden. The arching golden stream steamed in the cold air, the early sunshine silhouetting his neat body and giving him a shining halo. It was a moment that took her totally by surprise: the sheer naturalness of it. Then he’d come back to bed, throwing himself into her arms again, his skin goose-bumpy from the chill of the morning, and they’d made love again.
Last night had been the first time she and Chris had gone further than kisses and hugs, and it had been wonderful. Joanna hadn’t known what to expect — the only other man she’d had sex with had been Stefan — but Chris had been a tender and enthusiastic partner, and had made such devoted love to every inch of her body that this morning she felt transfigured. It’s only your hormones, she reminded herself; it doesn’t actually mean anything. But then she mocked herself: meaningful or not, it felt marvellous! She struggled to remember when she’d last felt like this. The first few months with Stefan, probably, when they’d still been in love, before she’d fallen pregnant with Mia.
Still, she mustn’t forget how painfully that had ended. This romance could end just as badly. However much she wanted the affair with Chris to go on and on in a flowering of love and commitment, wanting something with all of your heart offered no guarantee that you’d get it. Or, even if you did, that it would live up to your hopes.
Chris had been courting her in a pleasantly old-fashioned way ever since Mollie had introduced them, but up till now they’d never spent more than a few hours at a time in each other’s company: seeing a movie, having a meal together, socialising with her friends. Being on Chris’s farm would be a new experience. She’d grown up in the suburbs of Perth and had never ventured further afield than the Swan Valley vineyards, so she had only the vaguest idea about what being on a farm might be like.
When she’d first driven down to Berricup, passing through those long miles of paddocks dotted with sheep and striped with the stubble of last year’s crops, the sense that the town was an island in a sea of farmland had been a shock. But now that she’d made friends among her colleagues and connections with the kids at school she’d stopped seeing it that way. Now it was the people she was aware of.
Mia had seemed happy enough to come out here. She hadn’t made a fuss about being taken away from her new friends for the holidays. She’d liked Chris right from the start, probably because he treated her like a human being and not a little pest. Joanna had been worrying about how a six-year-old would cope with being in another strange place so soon after the upheaval of moving to Berricup, and especially the shift of her mother’s focus away from her. Of course she’d done her best to prepare the ground, but who knows what goes on in a child’s head? Mia had survived the tight-lipped break-up with Stefan and seemed quite content these days with her role as the child of a single mother. Having been such a child herself, Joanna had never made a big deal of it. These days their situation wasn’t unusual, and it was a help that one of Mia’s best buddies was in the same boat.
Joanna stacked the clean dishes on the drainer and went to wipe the crumbs from the jarrah table. It was massive, probably as old as the house. She wiped down the sink and rinsed the dishcloth. Some jobs were the same wherever you were; it was the company, or lack of it, that could make them seem like drudgery. In the right circumstances, like this morning, even the most mundane tasks seemed like a celebration of life, and love.
Chris had told her about the additions he was having done to the house. Although he hadn’t said as much, she had a notion that this activity had been prompted by his plans for her, and that was a happy thought. The house as it stood offered little in the way of comfort or character. The four rooms left standing had been built of mud-brick by the first people to farm here a hundred or so years ago. They were cracking and crumbling, providing shelter for a menagerie of tiny creatures.
During the working week two of the builders camped in the old bedrooms, with the third man sleeping in a caravan outside. She and Chris and Mia were occupying a separate flat that had been put up sometime during the cream-brick sixties to accommodate the Youngmans’ growing family. There were two small bedrooms and a bathroom, with a narrow veranda that caught the morning sun. The same long building accommodated the farm’s office, a laundry, storeroom and at the far end, the workshop, or so Chris had told her. Joanna hadn’t had time to explore.
With the kitchen in order, Joanna went to make their beds, stopping in the bathroom to tidy her hair. She hadn’t put it up yet this morning. Chris liked it down around her shoulders, but if she was going to be cooking she’d want it tucked back out of the way. Luckily, her hair had enough curl to stay up with only clips, and she liked to pile it high on her head in an effort to look taller. Not that it mattered with Chris, who was no giant, but it was a habit: hair piled up was how Joanna Corcoran looked. She tweaked the blonde curls around her face and smiled at her image. Her skin was glowing, her lips rosy from kissing, and today she certainly didn’t need any makeup; the blue jumper brought out the bloom on her cheeks and her eyes were sparkling. For this visit she’d invested in a couple of pairs of jeans, more appropriate for farm wear, she’d thought, than her usual long skirts and boots, and she checked in the mirror to be reassured that they didn’t make her look fat. The stiff fabric felt strange against her skin.
She passed into their bedroom. It had been Chris’s quarters for so long that the smell of him had permeated the fabric of the room. It was full of relics of his boyhood, and not very clean. She’d resist the urge to tackle it, just in case during the coming days she decided she wanted nothing more to do with the man. She smiled at the unlikeliness of that. The room would keep. Chris had put clean sheets on the bed and it was warm under the duvet, she liked the smell of him, and that was really all that mattered.
After she’d tidied the bed and finished unpacking her clothes Joanna went into Mia’s room. This was more spartan, but comfortable enough, and Mia liked having the outdoors so close outside the window. Joanna pulled up the bedding that had draped itself on the floor and folded her daughter’s pyjamas, tucking them under the pillow. It looked as if Chris had bought this sheet set specially for Mia’s visit: it had pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh all over it, and it felt as new as her jeans.
On her way back to the kitchen Joanna lingered outside. There had been a shower of rain after she’d arrived yesterday and she’d wondered, as she’d listened to the unfamiliar sound of it on the iron roof, whether this might be the beginning of the winter rains that she’d heard people talk about. But, although the ground was still damp, the morning was clear and cool with the sunshine dazzling where it sparkled off wet leaves.
Occupying the angle between the flat and the old part of the house was a quadrant of lawn shaded by a huge tree. On the far side was a wide garden bed, with here and there plants in big pots. The lawn was green and well-mown, the edges neat. Had Chris done this in honour of her visit, she wondered. Somebody had made a garden out here, anyway, and was still tending it.
The pergola that connected the old house with the cream brick building was supporting a gnarled ornamental grape, its crimson leaves forming a dense canopy with trailing branches festooning to the ground. This was the moment of the vine’s glory, the leaves at their full depth of autumn colour, just beginning to wither and fall. In a gusty breeze that came out of nowhere a few of them skittered along the pink brick paving.
The garden was confined by a chest-high wall of stone giving it an air of enclosure. Probably keeping out the sheep, Joanna guessed. Would sheep eat garden plants? She rested her elbows on the coping and looked out.
The farm extended as far as she could see. At least, she assumed it was all part of this farm. She could see no other house or any other building. The ground undulated away into the distance like the swell on the ocean; greyish dry grass, a few trees, a scattering of sheep like drab smudges. The sky was unbelievably vast, a few thin clouds drifting from west to east, the air dry in her nostrils and scented with grass, and was that aromatic edge coming from the sheep, or something in the garden?
Curious, she leaned over the wall and looked in all directions, trying to trace the way she’d driven in. In the far distance she could see the glint of something moving — what was it? — then just before it vanished she made out that it was a car, speeding along the distant road, so far away that she could hear no sound. A sudden sense of isolation swamped her and she fought down a surge of panic. At this moment she had no idea where Chris and Mia were. She was utterly alone.
She’d had an idea that the houses on farms were closer together and neighbours were there as friends, to be relied on in emergencies. With no other house within sight she was forced to revise this idea. If she did come to live here, she’d be spending a lot of her time out of sight or sound of another human being; at least, she rationalised, when Chris was out there doing whatever farmers did — she was fairly sure that didn’t include sitting about the house amusing their wives. She could imagine herself waiting, feeling abandoned, for Chris to come in at the end of the day, but pushed the thought aside: it might never happen. And if it did, and at this ludicrous idea she managed a smile, there was always daytime television. Telling herself not to be silly, but nonetheless shivering in the freshening wind, Joanna went inside and put the kettle on. By the time the kettle had begun to sing she could hear the truck carrying Mia and Chris back to her, the rumble of its engine bringing a smile to her face and a lift to her heart.
Mia ran in through the back door, her face rosy and her hair a dark tangle. ‘Mummy!’
Joanna leaned down to hug her daughter, hiding her face for a moment in the silky curls and breathing in the scent of her child in an embrace that brought with it a flood of relief so intense that it came as a shock. But she mustn’t let Mia know how anxious she’d been, and she waited until her voice was under control again before she spoke. ‘What, lovely? Did you have a good time?’
Mia extricated herself from Joanna’s clasp and held out two grubby fists. ‘See?’ She opened one hand, then the other, and let drop into Joanna’s waiting palm something round and hard. ‘It’s gumnuts. Big ones. They’re off a marry tree.’
Joanna regarded the gnarled spheres in her palm. They were like little wooden urns, she thought, turning one of them about; hollow inside.
‘They’re very fine,’ she said.
The little girl took them back from her mother’s hand. ‘I’m going to keep them.’
‘Put them in your room, then,’ Joanna said, ‘and while you’re there, give your hair a brush. And wash your hands. Okay?’
Mia skipped out. Chris was standing in the doorway waiting for the reunion to be over. ‘Any chance of a cuppa?’ He came to her and held her for a moment. His hands and clothing were chilly and he smelled of sheep, but his own scent underlay that and Joanna found it reassuring. She breathed in deeply and pressed herself into the soft wool of his jumper. It was all right, they’d come back.
She looked up into his face and smiled. ‘I was making one. You’re just in time.’
‘Good.’ He grinned at her and went to the sink to wash his hands, shaking them dry and going across to sit at the big table. ‘Anything to eat?’
This easy assumption that she was the source of nourishment was a surprise, a not entirely pleasant one. She still felt like a visitor here and hadn’t expected to be taken for granted quite so soon.
‘How would I know?’ she said, trying for the easy banter that had become a habit between them. ‘I’m a stranger here, myself.’
Chris grinned at her. ‘Just testing. There’s cake in the tin. I’ll get it. You make the tea. You know where that is, don’t you?’
Relieved, Joanna made the tea. The cake that Chris retrieved from the tin was a crumbly fruit cake with a musty smell. She arranged slices on a plate and poured the tea, with a glass of milk for Mia.
‘Everything all right?’ She settled opposite Chris at the table. ‘Mia behave herself?’
‘Good,’ Chris said.
Mia came back into the kitchen, hands wet and hair combed, and scrambled onto a chair next to her mother. ’I helped Chris. Those sheep are big!’ she said. ‘Big as me, nearly. They’ve got wrinkly noses.’ She wrinkled her own nose and felt it with her fingertips so they’d be in no doubt what she meant. ‘And their fur …’
‘Wool,’ Chris corrected her.
‘Wool,’ Mia said, in tones of wonder, ’it’s warm, really really warm.’
‘That’s why we make woolly jumpers out of it,’ Joanna said.
Mia looked her with wide eyes and Joanna realised that the little girl was making the connection between those animals she’d just seen and the clothes she was wearing. ‘But how …’ she wondered, looking down at her red jumper and pressing her hands into its softness.
Chris answered her. ‘We shear the wool off … no, it doesn’t hurt them,’ he smiled at the look of horror that came over Mia’s face, ‘they’re glad to be rid of it … and it gets sent away to a mill where they wash it and spin it and dye it and make it into red jumpers for little girls.’
Mia considered this. ‘And blue ones,’ she stipulated, pointing to Joanna.
‘And blue ones,’ Chris agreed.