Murder, Mayhem and Men On Pause: Part one

May 13, 2023
Part one in the serialisation of the novel written by author Sandy Curtis.

Just when Ellie Cummins is free to shed her corporate wife image, she finds the body of a young woman in an apartment she’s been hired to re-design. Her fledgling
business depends on this contract, so she tries to ignore the long-buried grief the trauma exposes.

When Ellie learns that her daughter has a personal connection to the victim, and the police have no leads, she and friends Cass and Kandy decide to investigate the
murder. But Brisbane’s alleyways are dark and their detective skills dubious, so how far will they go for justice?

Kandy once lived a hard life on the streets, but will uncovering her husband’s secret life destroy all she’s achieved since then?

Is solid, dependable Cass as content with her life as she seems?

And is the cop who responded to their call more interested in Ellie than the investigation?

For the three friends, it’s a time of change and self-discovery. And the realisation that life, like love, doesn’t play fair.


Chapter One

‘When is a marriage not a marriage?’ Ellie Cummins tried to stop the words but the wine had been flowing freely and her tongue had loosened in ratio to the glasses consumed. She watched Cass Brighton’s forehead crease in concern and told herself to lighten up. This was her birthday, for heaven’s sake, not a pity party. She should be grateful she was sharing it with her best friend in a great restaurant and not sitting at home alone.

            ‘Is this a joke, Ellie?’

            ‘When it’s my marriage,’ Ellie tried to laugh but it came out a sob and she gulped the rest of her red wine, ‘then, yes, it is a joke.’

            ‘Ellie, don’t you think you’ve had enough?’ Cass gently moved the bottle to the other side of the table, just out of Ellie’s reach.

            ‘That’s just the point, Cass. I never get enough. Just because your randy husband spends half the night chasing you around the bed, don’t think the rest of us are as lucky.’

Damn, there was the pity party trying to break out again. Ellie mentally smacked herself. ‘You know my parents were divorced?’ she asked, and watched Cass blink at the sudden change of topic, but nod anyway.

            ‘They separated first. Then my father used to come around some nights so we could play happy families and they could talk and try to sort out their problems. Well, that was the theory. But the selfish bastard only wanted to have sex and my mother never realised she was being used. And he always came around on Wednesday nights.’

            Cass hesitated, her plump cheeks quivering as though unsure if they should move, but then asked, ‘Always? On a Wednesday night? Why?’



            ‘Every Wednesday night. Without fail. My mother made them from some old family recipe, and my father loved them. So he would come around every Wednesday night.’

            Cass’s expression said that if this was a joke then she was waiting for the punch line.

            ‘So Saturday morning is like rissoles!’ Ellie announced triumphantly.

Now Cass raised an eyebrow.

            ‘Sex,’ Ellie sighed, and shook her head to try to clear the fuzziness in her brain. ‘Saturday mornings. It’s a ritual. Like rissoles on a Wednesday night. Damien wakes up with a hard on, rolls over, fiddles with my boobs for a few seconds, then tries it on. If I knock him back he’s grumpy for a week, so I let him go, then he’s happy until the next Saturday. He doesn’t care if I get off or not, selfish prick. If I take the initiative he tells me he’s too tired.’ She tried to ignore the pain that spiked through her, but it tumbled out in almost-whispered words. ‘And it’s been too many months now since he’s even bothered about Saturday mornings.’

            She pulled at some hair escaping her chignon and watched the blonde strands flutter in the faint draught from the air-conditioning. ‘All he thinks about is business. Thinks the sun shines out of Melba’s mouth.’

            Cass didn’t hesitate this time. ‘Melba’s mouth?’

            ‘On the hundred dollar note!’ Ellie smiled. ‘Cass, no wonder I like you – you’re so innocent. Pollyanna and pecan pie. I bet you even wear a nightie to bed.’ Ellie laughed as though it was the funniest joke she’d ever heard, but she heard the desperation in the sound and forced herself to stop.

            ‘Do you?’ She queried when she’d calmed down. ‘Wear a nightie to bed, I mean?’

            ‘Not normally. I used to wear pyjamas years ago, before I met Joe. But he slept in the raw and …’ Cass smiled, then patted her almost non-existent waistline, ‘now I can’t stand the tight elastic.’

            ‘I could wear a g-string, fishnet stockings and high heels to bed and Damien wouldn’t notice. Maybe if I wore the business section of the Courier-Mail he’d get an erection.’

When Cass laughed, Ellie realised how serious she had sounded. Well, she was serious. And frustrated. Not just sexually, but in every aspect of her life. The frustration had been brewing and bubbling inside her for quite a while and she was desperately afraid that if she didn’t find a solution to it soon it would erupt into something she wouldn’t be able to control.

‘Have you talked to Damien about how you feel?’ Cass asked.

            ‘I’ve tried to. But it doesn’t work. He doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with our relationship. Says he can’t understand what I’m grumbling about, he works hard to provide a good home so I should be grateful. Then I feel like a bitch for complaining but frustrated that I can’t make him see a marriage is more than a fancy home and a full wine fridge.’

            ‘Have you thought about getting a job?’

            Ellie laughed. ‘Doing what? After we lost Paul, Damien would go ballistic if I even mentioned the idea.’

            ‘He didn’t blame -’

            ‘No. SIDS can happen at home just as easily as at a crèche, but when I had Pru we were both pretty paranoid. I gave up work and we installed every device possible to make sure it didn’t happen to her too. Then Miranda came along and by the time she went to school I was involved in the P&C committee and tuckshop and sports coaching and,’ she sighed, ‘every other school activity you could think of. By the time the girls went to uni and Damien had gone into his own business I’d morphed into the corporate wife,’ she scribed inverted commas in the air and sighed at the description she found so unlike what she really felt. A corporate wife would have understood her husband forgetting her birthday. A corporate wife would have understood that even when she reminded her husband and he said he was too busy to take her out or even have a meal with her that that was okay. That’s what corporate wives did, didn’t they? But she’d never really been a corporate wife, had she. The role had slid over her and sucked her up before she’d realised what had happened.

            ‘How is Miranda? You had lunch with her today, didn’t you?’

            Ellie nodded. ‘She’s okay. Still job-hunting. Speaking of jobs, do you still like working at the real estate office?’

‘It’s all right,’ Cass shrugged, ‘but lately I’ve felt as though something… something’s missing. It’s a great job, and being part-time means I can still do all the gardening and sewing I like, but,’ she smiled wryly, ‘I’m probably just tired of waiting for those kids of mine to give me more grandkids to spoil.’ She looked at her watch. ‘Time to go. I have an early start in the morning.’

Ellie took deliberate steps and tried to clear her head as they walked from the restaurant. The fuzziness had eased a little, but her stomach was sloshing upwards with each step and she didn’t want to repay Cass’s kindness by throwing up in her car. Although friends since their younger daughters had been in high school together, it was only when Cass’s sister had become ill and died a few years ago that they’d become close. Ellie knew what losing someone you loved felt like, and she’d done her best to help Cass cope with months of helping her sister through intense chemotherapy and finally coming to terms with the inevitable.

            Now she watched as Cass concentrated on negotiating the traffic. Most Brisbane drivers seemed to view the speed limit as advisory rather than mandatory, and although not a risk taker by nature, Cass kept with the traffic flow.

            By the time they’d reached Ellie’s house in the northern suburbs, the effects of the wine had lessened and Ellie had slipped into a pensive silence. Cass parked in the driveway, leaned over and gave her shoulder a squeeze. ‘Ellie, any time you need to talk, just give me a call. Doesn’t matter what time it is or where I am.’

            Ellie blinked away the tears that threatened and nodded. She gripped Cass’s hand in gratitude, and got out of the car. ‘Thanks for tonight,’ she said, ‘I really appreciate it.’

            ‘That’s what friends are for,’ Cass smiled, waited for Ellie to close the door, and backed out of the driveway.

            Ellie watched the car drive away, then turned and, like a reluctant Roman at the Colosseum, walked slowly to her front door.

It wasn’t a hangover, Ellie decided next morning as she dragged herself from her bed to the ensuite. More like depression. There didn’t seem to be much to get out of bed for, lately. The house was always immaculate because Damien was rarely home during the day. Her normal housework routine left nothing to do after 10am, except read, go shopping or spend more time at the two charities where she volunteered. She sometimes wondered why she couldn’t get more enthused about working on the fundraising committees for those charities. She really believed in what they did, and she liked the people she worked with, but lately she went home wondering if she should be doing something else with her life as well.

            An hour later the built-in vacuum system hummed quietly as she dusted the marble, steel, glass and leather that constituted the modern decor Damien insisted on and she tolerated.

            ‘No soul,’ she grumbled as she polished and primped. She didn’t hate the look, but her heart longed for the rustic elegance of white wood furniture, delicate florals and vintage fabrics. Sometimes she felt like an impostor, an old-fashioned country girl in the guise of a well-heeled corporate wife, continually worried that one day someone would find her out. And find her wanting.

            The drone of the garage roller-door rising made her frown. Damien never came home from work in the mornings. She’d been asleep when he’d returned from a business meeting last night and he’d left before she’d woken this morning. Curious, she put the duster away, walked to the kitchen, and turned the electric kettle on. When Damien hadn’t appeared a minute or two later, she went into the garage.

            Damien was slumped over the steering wheel of the BMW, his hands cushioning his forehead. Slightly alarmed, Ellie hurried over and opened the car door.

            ‘Damien, are you all right?’

            He didn’t answer, and Ellie’s heartbeat accelerated. She shook his arm. ‘Damien! Are you ill?’

            He pushed himself back into the seat. For a man of only forty-nine he looked a lot older, his face creased and grey, eyes blood-shot and dull with fatigue. Ellie felt her stomach drop. She realised that she hadn’t really looked at him in the past week, their communication concentrated into his rushed phone calls and her notes about his evening meal languishing in the oven.

He turned towards her, and the bleakness in his eyes almost made her heart stop beating. There was only one other time when she’d seen him look like that, and it chilled her to the core to remember it.


Chapter Two

Cass picked her husband’s work socks off the bedroom floor and tossed them into the bathroom clothes hamper as she hurried down the hallway in response to the front doorbell’s chimes.

            ‘Ellie!’ she exclaimed as she pulled open the door. ‘Come in.’ She bit her lip. ‘I hate to say it, but you look terrible.’

            ‘You should see the other bloke,’ Ellie quipped, but her voice was hollow. ‘I was hoping you were home from work.’

            ‘Just got here. Peak hour traffic was lousy. Cup of tea?’ Cass led the way into her kitchen. ‘Coffee? Or something stronger?’

            ‘Better make it coffee.’ Ellie slumped onto a chair and rested her elbows on the timber table, her hands cupping her chin as though she were incapable of holding her head up any longer. ‘We’re bankrupt,’ she blurted out.

            ‘What?’ Cass whirled around so fast water splashed from the kettle she’d just filled.

            ‘Damien. He’s lost everything.’

            ‘How?’ Cass flicked on the switch, put two mugs on the bench and sat opposite Ellie.

            ‘He borrowed against the company and invested in a big development scheme that’s turned out to be a scam. The fellow running it had an impeccable record, or so he thought. He’d checked him out and couldn’t find anything to make him suspicious. He’d even made big profits for some of Damien’s friends in the past. But it looks like he was just leading up to this one big killing. Once he got all the money and the project was supposed to start he skipped the country.’


            ‘Double hell. Damien even mortgaged the house.’

            ‘Ooooh.’ Cass felt the air leave her lungs. If she felt stunned, she could imagine how Ellie must have felt. ‘When did you find out?’

            ‘This morning. Once he knew there wasn’t a hope of getting any money back, he came home to tell me. I thought he was going to have a heart attack, he looked so bad.’

            Cass refrained from telling Ellie that she didn’t look much better.

            ‘He went back to the office an hour ago to see what he could salvage.’

            The kettle bubbled, and Cass rose and made the coffee. She opened a packet of chocolate biscuits, emptied half onto a plate and placed it and the two mugs on the table. ‘What are you going to do?’

            ‘Get a job.’

            ‘Doing what?’

            Ellie sat up straight. A touch of defiance lit her eyes. ‘I was an interior decorator before I married. Someone might take me on as an assistant.’

            ‘Ellie, your house is proof of your talent, but you haven’t worked in nearly twenty-six years. You’ll probably have to do a training course. I saw in the newspaper that TAFE have some starting next week.’

            ‘I can use a computer. At least I’m not totally out of touch with technology.’ The bravado seeped out of her like a slow leak. ‘Hell, Cass. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Damien’s at least had the sense to transfer what little savings we have left into my personal account so we won’t lose that when the company goes to the wall. And we won’t be leaving a string of creditors chasing us for money, only the bank.’

            ‘How long can you last?’

            Ellie shrugged. ‘A couple of months, probably three at the most.’

            ‘Would Damien go on unemployment benefits?’

            ‘Are you kidding? Can you see him lining up at Centrelink? He’s too proud for that.’

            ‘Pride doesn’t pay the grocery bills.’

            Ellie picked up a biscuit and nibbled at it. ‘I’ll put my name down for the dole if I have to, but that can’t happen until after everything’s finalised. Honestly,’ she sighed, ‘you’d think the stupid bugger would have had more sense.’

            ‘With his experience, he might find it easy to get a job,’ Cass tentatively offered, but agreed with Ellie’s expression that said flying pigs were now in season.

            ‘Perhaps Phillip could find something for him? Even something temporary? I know he and Kandy are away at a conference this week, but you could ask when they get back.’

Unlike Ellie who Cass had met through having children in the same classes at high school, Kandy had whirled into their lives when Ellie was organising a charity fund-raising function and had hired Kandy’s catering firm. Kandy had charged them only a nominal fee, and also came to help at the event. Her enthusiasm might not have been viewed too kindly by some of the other workers, but she inspired more donations in that one evening than the charity normally got in six months.

            She was also an enigma who had puzzled Cass and Ellie for the three years they’d known her. Married to Phillip Breckham, a much older man for whom the word “ultraconservative” had obviously been coined, she was discreetly promiscuous with younger men who exuded the virility Phillip seemed to lack. Normally this would have put her on Ellie’s and Cass’s be-polite-to-but-don’t-encourage list, but there was a child-like quality about Kandy that had sneaked under their barriers and they liked her in spite of not agreeing with her behaviour. That she never slept with married men also helped ease their minds.

            ‘I think Damien would only accept something from Phillip as a last resort. The two don’t exactly hit it off.’

            ‘Joe couldn’t take to him either. Mind you, Joe doesn’t feel comfortable talking with anyone who wears a suit and a tie and drinks wine that costs more than ten dollars a bottle,’ Cass smiled.

            An hour and several projected scenarios later, Cass watched Ellie walk out her front gate.

For the first time since they’d bought their home, Ellie was almost afraid to walk in the door. Not because she was scared of what she might find, but because it was so … empty.

            Her footsteps made no noise in the carpeted hallway, in the expansive living room, in the spacious built-in wardrobe where she changed into a tracksuit to combat the chill in the crisp autumn air. It was a relief to go to the toilet and listen to her sneakers squeak on the tiles, the tinkle into the bowl and the flush as more of Brisbane’s water went out to sea.

            She could play a CD, have music fill up the spaces and bounce off the walls, or watch television and immerse herself in someone else’s life. But she knew it wouldn’t fill up the space that frightened her the most.

            Because it was frightening, this vast emptiness inside her – like some desert where even the sound of her voice would seem out of place. At other times it scared her to think that she might allow Damien, or someone, in to disturb this hollowness she had created for herself. It was a hollow, she had to admit. It certainly wasn’t a sanctuary.

            For a brief moment she thought of phoning her brother, then realised that the time difference in Perth would mean he was still at work. And she didn’t feel like telling her mother yet. After Ellie’s father had died, her mother had moved into a granny flat behind her brother Peter’s house, not quite in a baby-sitting position to their young teenage children, but as a backup for Peter and Marie as they both worked. Although older than Ellie by two years, Peter had married much later, and his move to Perth meant they only saw each other on infrequent visits. Ellie knew she would eventually have to tell them what had happened, but now she hesitated. It was too soon, the shock was too raw, the prospects too grim. She wanted to cry, but no tears would come. It was as though crying would be too big an effort at the moment and she had to conserve her energy for better things.

            Or maybe crying would make her feel things that were best left unfelt.

            She thrust the thought away and went into the kitchen. For once, Damien might actually come home for dinner on time.

Ellie watched the moonlight streaming in through the bedroom window and illuminating the lumpy shape of Damien as he huddled beneath the covers. When had that started? Damien never huddled. When they’d first slept together he’d sprawled diagonally across the bed and barely left any room for her.

            And it wasn’t the only thing that had changed. The trim young man she’d married now had a spare tyre that evoked four-wheel-drive rather than sports car.

            She slipped from the bed and pulled on her robe. A few minutes later, cup of hot chocolate in hand, she snuggled into the comfortable sofa in the rumpus room and looked out through the sliding door to the perfectly manicured lawn and immaculate white-stone and dracaena gardens surrounding the designer swimming pool. She’d been delighted by the large backyard when they’d bought the house, but Damien’s need for prestige had seen her vision of an English cottage garden and vegetables growing in fertile rows become a page from a home beautiful magazine.

Above all the questions that had run through her mind after Damien had confessed his folly this morning, the one that most plagued her was, did she still love him? Was the pity she had felt at his haggard face and moans of self-recrimination enough? She’d been stunned, disbelieving, angry – but surely she should have felt compassion, and not the kind of pity she would feel for some charity case on television.

            The thought of not loving Damien any more filled her with dread. If that was gone, then the prospect of that emptiness inside her growing until it consumed her had suddenly become very, very real.


Chapter Three

Cass choked back a sigh on hearing her mother’s voice on the phone. When Audra had married Gerry Collins twenty years ago, Cass had been pleased that her mother was no longer alone. Although ten years older than Audra, Gerry had been quite young in his outlook for a seventy-five-year-old. Unfortunately he hadn’t stayed that way.

            During the past year, Audra had started to become more demanding of Cass, asking her to do tasks she was perfectly capable of performing herself. In the beginning, Cass had complied because Audra always had a seemingly feasible excuse, but as the demands grew more frequent, and the age gap between Gerry and Audra became more apparent, she realised that Audra was starting to depend on her far more than was necessary.

            ‘Gerry’s constipated,’ Audra said after her initial hello.

            ‘You’re kidding.’

            ‘No.’ Her mother sounded aggrieved, as though Gerry’s bowel movements were on the same importance level as world peace.

            ‘I believe you, Mum. I mean, you’re kidding about phoning me to tell me that Gerry’s constipated. What do you expect me to do about it?’

            ‘Well, there’s nothing you can do about it. He’s very upset. You know how he carries on. I just wanted some support.’

            ‘Buy a girdle,’ Cass mumbled.

            ‘What did you say?’

            ‘Shit, Mum, what do you want me to say?’

            ‘Don’t use that word. It’s not nice.’

            ‘It would be if Gerry did it.’

            ‘Gerry doesn’t swear.’

            ‘Sounds like he’s not shitting either.’ Cass muttered, but she heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath. Time to change tactics. ‘Do you have any suppositories?’

            ‘Yes. He uses one every morning. You know he has a sluggish bowel.’

            ‘Are you sure he got it in right? It didn’t slip out again? He mightn’t have noticed.’

            Cass could almost hear Audra’s silent indignation. ‘I don’t go into the bathroom when he’s doing his ablutions. That’s his business.’

            ‘Except when he’s constipated.’ Cass thought back to most of Gerry’s dinner conversations. ‘Then it’s a wonder he doesn’t take out a front page ad in the Courier-Mail.’

            In the silence that followed, Cass resisted the urge to hang up. Her mother’s constant phone calls about nothing in particular and everything in general were beginning to stretch their already tenuous relationship. There were never enough hours in Cass’s day, and certainly none to waste discussing Gerry’s bowel movements, or lack of them.

            ‘I read about Ellie’s husband’s company in the newspaper.’

            Cass smiled. Audra had obviously decided to change the subject. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it’s really tough on them.’

            ‘How could he let himself be duped like that? Poor Ellie and their daughters won’t be able to hold their heads up in public.’

            Air hissed through Cass’s teeth. How like Audra to be concerned about what people thought rather than the personal effect on her friend. ‘I’m sure they’ll be fine, Mum. Ellie’s a very resourceful person and Damien will soon find another job.’ Before her mother could reply, she pretended there was someone at the door and said goodbye.

            She hated lying to her mother, but sometimes she couldn’t cope with Audra’s intolerant attitude. And at the moment she was too worried about Ellie’s emotional state to argue with Audra. She glanced through the lounge room curtains to the front yard. A storm a few days ago had greened the lawn a little, but the trees still dropped their leaves in an attempt to stay alive in spite of drought and water restrictions.

            As though thinking about her friend had conjured her up, Cass saw Ellie walk through the front gate and up the path.

Ellie’s stomach churned with trepidation and excitement as she walked up to Cass’s front door. She noted how the white paint on the chamferboard walls had weathered to a tired cream but pots of lush ginger plants gave the small patio a welcoming look, and she realised how much she preferred this to the starkness of her own brick and tile entry.

            It had been two weeks since Damien’s company had gone into receivership. Weeks in which all of Ellie’s job-seeking efforts had made her realise the huge gap her twenty-six years out of the industry had created in her knowledge and skills. Cass had persuaded her to undertake a TAFE business and computing course, but getting a job was paramount. Damien had sunk into a deep depression, and his initial attempts at finding work had dwindled to reading the positions vacant section of the newspaper when he finally climbed out of bed and toyed with the breakfast she had prepared.

            Within minutes of her knocking, she was watching Cass boil the kettle and place fruit cake on the table.

            ‘What’s up, Ellie?’ Cass asked. ‘You’ve had a glint in your eyes since you walked in.’

            ‘You know how I’ve applied for work with interior decorators – or interior designers as they now call themselves – and been knocked back because they reckon I don’t have up-to-date qualifications and experience? Well, I’ve decided I should start my own business.’ There, it was out, but the expression on Cass’s face wasn’t encouraging.

            ‘How are you going to afford that?’

            ‘I thought I’d go freelance. Get some business cards made up. Get samples from suppliers. Advertise that I’ll come to the client.’ Ellie felt her anxiety rise as Cass looked even more doubtful. ‘Show them photos of my house as an example if necessary,’ she added.

            ‘Well, your home is definitely a showpiece.’ Cass thought with envy of Ellie’s uncluttered rooms, the paintings that matched the décor, the ornaments that added just the right touch. She looked around at her kitchen benchtops with their mismatched canisters, the growing pile of “stuff” that Joe added to after he cleared his work esky each night, the dining room already choking with bookcases that had overflowed from the lounge room. ‘It’s worth a try,’ she added. ‘And you could set up your own website. Let me know if I can help.’

            ‘Actually,’ Ellie leaned closer over her coffee, trying to appear casual, but eager for her friend’s support. ‘I’m hoping you’ll give me some advice on the paperwork. You’ve always worked in administration and … well, even when I last worked I wasn’t involved in that side of things.’

            ‘I’d be happy to help. How’s the TAFE course going?’

            ‘Like a room full of menopausal women all pretending they can remember each other’s names,’ she grimaced. ‘Most of us are making out like we know what we’re doing. I wasn’t any good with that stuff even when I was at school. The only good thing is the teacher.’

            Cass smiled. ‘Good-looking, is he?’

            ‘Gorgeous. Looks like Hugh Jackman.’

            ‘Complete with six-pack?’

            ‘Yep. He wears these very fitting polo shirts.’ Ellie nearly drooled her appreciation, then she sighed. ‘But with a body like that he’s probably as bent as a fork in a garbage disposal.’

            The teaspoon rattled against her mug as Cass stirred her coffee and laughed. ‘Not all the good-looking ones are gay, Ellie. But I often wonder why magazines use male models with pecs bigger than most women’s boobs. It makes me jealous.’

            ‘It’s not the pecs that get me, it’s the six-pack. Most men we know have a beer gut so big they have to search for their crown jewels with a mirror on a stick. Except for your Joe, he’s still okay.’

            ‘He’s starting to thicken out. Not that he’ll ever match me,’ Cass sighed.

            ‘You’re not too bad for someone who’s had four kids.’ Ellie was quiet for a minute, then mused, ‘I guess there’s an advantage to staying with a man who can remember what your breasts were like before they drooped – he can close his eyes and rely on memory rather than imagination.’

            Cass realised that Ellie had switched thought tracks. She frowned. ‘You’re not thinking of leaving Damien, are you?’

            ‘At the moment it’s only a thought.’ Ellie tried to sound flippant, but knew she wasn’t fooling Cass. ‘When he can be bothered speaking to me he just grunts or else he yells at me that if he wasn’t trying so hard to make money for us he wouldn’t have got into this mess.’

            ‘He’s just feeling guilty. And you said he’s depressed.’

            All the unhappiness Ellie had been bottling up for the past few years rose to the surface. It should have been like a volcano, erupting and spewing out all the need and loneliness and longing and doubts, but it simply spilled over in fat tears that trickled slowly down her cheeks to plop on Cass’s table like the first drops of summer rain before a storm.

            ‘Oh, hon,’ Cass reached across and covered Ellie’s slim hand with her broad one. ‘It’s that bad, is it?’

            Ellie could only nod, afraid that if she spoke the words lying in the aching pit of her heart she’d never be able to stop.

            ‘Perhaps you could do with some time out.’ Cass wanted to go around and hug her friend, but she sensed that wasn’t what Ellie needed at the moment. Like when you were trying hard to be strong after the death of a loved one and people offered sympathy – it just made you want to cry all the more. She walked to the bathroom, grabbed a box of tissues and handed it to Ellie. ‘Why don’t you spend a few days with Pru in Sydney?’

            ‘Pru adores Damien,’ Ellie muttered and blew her nose. ‘She won’t understand. She’ll think I’m abandoning him when he needs me. She’s as work-focused as Damien.’

            ‘I guess she’s taking the business going to the wall pretty hard too.’

            ‘When she flew up last weekend Damien hardly spoke to her. He tried to put on a brave face but then he just went silent. She doesn’t know how to get through to him any more than I do.’

            ‘What about Miranda?’

            Ellie tried to laugh, but it came out like a choking sound. ‘At least being broke has one advantage. We won’t get so many phone calls from Miranda asking for money to finance her latest invention to save the environment.’

            ‘So what’s she doing when she’s not job hunting?’

            ‘She’s still volunteering with the food handout van. Compared to the poverty she sees every day, Damien’s problems don’t amount to much.’ She saw the surprise on Cass’s face and hastened to explain. ‘She’s sympathetic, and she feels sorry for us, but it’s not like we’re starving.’ She sighed. ‘Not yet, anyway.’

            At Cass’s raised eyebrows, Ellie hastened to explain. ‘Damien knows we don’t have much money left to live on but when he goes out to try to schmooze his business friends into giving him a job he spends up big trying to impress them that he’s okay. Our credit cards will soon max out.’

            ‘What are you going to do? Apart from set up your own business.’

            ‘That’s just it, isn’t it. I’ll need money to get business cards made up, money to advertise. I had a job interview yesterday at that new furniture store and they seemed pleased with me. Said they’d let me know by Friday if I got the job. Selling furniture isn’t quite what I’d planned but it might provide me with some contacts when I start my own business.’

            As Cass watched Ellie dab away the last of her tears, she mentally crossed her fingers that her friend would land the job. Taking some of the financial pressure off might help the problems she was having with Damien. But her gut seemed to emphasise the might.


Chapter Four

The eye-catching business card she’d envisaged was finally taking shape under Ellie’s pencil when the phone rang. She waited for Damien to answer it, but after the fourth ring she walked into his office.

            He was sitting in his leather chair and staring at the instrument as though it was about to bring him more bad news. Ellie reached across his desk and picked up the receiver. A couple of minutes and a short conversation later she replaced it and smiled at Damien. ‘I have a job.’

            His dark eyes flickered brief interest, but he stayed silent, a brown-haired man slouching rumples in a brown track-suit.

            ‘Aren’t you going to ask me where?’


            Ellie bristled at the reluctant obedience in his tone, but she was determined not to let him take the edge off the pleasure she felt. Getting a job after twenty-six years without one was quite an accomplishment, and she was going to savour the satisfaction while she could. ‘At the new Fabulous Furniture Store. Most of their stock is mass market but they do have an exclusive range. Richard, the manager, said he wants to build up that facet of the business and once I’ve learned the ropes and if they’re happy with me, I’ll be in charge of that section.’

            ‘Good for you.’

            It took restraint, but Ellie managed not to react to the hint of sarcasm in his words. ‘I start tomorrow.’ She almost added, if you’re interested.

            Damien simply nodded.

            Ellie hesitated. She felt sorry for him, but she was angry, too. He’d known for some time that his business was going to go broke, and that his efforts to find financial backup to prevent that had failed, but he hadn’t told her. Hadn’t even given her a hint that their lives were going to change so drastically. She almost felt that he’d cheated her, deprived her of the closeness they were supposed to share as a married couple. She didn’t want to talk about it, but right now, with the small fire of confidence the phone call had given her, she needed to talk about it.

            ‘Damien, what’s happened to us?’

            He blinked, surprise lighting his features for a brief second, then the closed expression she’d become used to seeing returned.

            ‘What do you mean?’

            ‘We don’t talk any more. You don’t tell me about … anything.’

            ‘I tell you when there’s something you need to know.’

            Ellie flinched at his belligerent tone, but restrained her instinctively angry reaction and said calmly, ‘No. You tell me only when I have to know. When you can’t keep it from me any more because it will soon be public knowledge.’ He turned his head away from her and studied the Picasso-like print with its sharp angles and vivid colours that Miranda had given him during her “Art” phase at university.

            Just as dispassionately, Ellie studied him. Saw the way his dark hair that once curled so thick and luxuriant had thinned with age; the sharply outlined jaw now softened with extra flesh; eyes that once flashed with laughter and enthusiasm now resentful and stubborn. ‘Damien, we’re like two strangers sharing a house. We’re polite, considerate, but we don’t know each other anymore. I don’t think we’ve had a meaningful conversation since Paul died.’

            ‘What does Paul’s death have to do with anything? I didn’t blame you, and you didn’t blame me. We had counselling, we worked our way through it.’

            ‘We went through the motions, Damien, not the e-motions.’ It was all becoming clear to her now. ‘We were so careful not to blame each other, not to hurt each other, that we forgot how to talk to each other on any level other than superficial.’ She reached out a hand, saw her fingers shaking with her desperate need to reach him, to re-connect … to re-connect with something inside herself. With what, she wasn’t sure.

            She knew if he took her hand, if he pulled her to him and held her the way he used to hold her, the way she needed to be held now, that it would be all right, that they’d make it through somehow.

            But he didn’t.

            He didn’t meet her gaze.

            Or take her hand.

            Or touch her.

            He looked at the paperwork on his desk as though it would absolve him of the responsibility of having to make things right in their world.

            Ellie waited.

            She wanted to be able to say something that would make it all right again. Like it was when the girls were small. She wanted to be able to tell him, this man who was her husband, with whom she’d shared most of her life, that she loved him.

            But she couldn’t.

            Because it would be a lie.

It was one thing she’d thought she’d never have to worry about again, Ellie realised when she dressed for her first day at work the next morning. The “first day” nerves – the anxiety that she wouldn’t measure up, that her fellow employees wouldn’t like her, that –

            She gave herself a mental shake. Sensible but smart straight navy skirt, white blouse with just enough frill to be feminine without losing its business-like crispness, hair pinned up and makeup subtle but defining. The mirror confirmed the outer facade would pass assessment. The scared inner core would have to remain hidden.

            Shoes had been a problem. None in her wardrobe lent themselves to standing for longer than a couple of hours, but a quick phone call to Kandy had resulted in a pair of conservative navy courts that had been worn enough to keep blisters at bay. Although the same clothes and shoe size as Ellie, Kandy was shorter, her slimness had a shape that women envied and men admired, and she was as dark as Ellie was fair.

            Ellie sometimes wondered what it was about Kandy that made it so easy to like her when some aspects of her life were totally opposite to the values Ellie always considered important.

            Kind of like with your kids, she sighed as she thought of Pru and Miranda. She might not always be happy with the way they were living their lives, but she loved them and, luckily, liked them as well. Most of the time.

Miranda might appear to be the one who didn’t have her life together, but she was more comfortable in her own skin than Pru. If Pru was any more up-tight she’d snap in a strong breeze. She didn’t so much have a stick up her ample arse as a telegraph pole. Pru’s physical features were all from Damien, but Ellie caught a glimpse of her eldest daughter in the tight press of her own lips as she looked in the mirror again. She carefully blotted her lipstick with a tissue and applied another coat of Delightful Coral. Recognising the gesture for the procrastination it was, she grabbed her handbag and hurried from the bedroom.

‘All the information you’ll need is in these folders.’

            Ellie watched as Richard Brown took out folders containing information sheets and catalogues from the various furniture manufacturers and placed them on the counter. Tall, thin of body and face and nose, his forehead was so high his dandruff must have learned how to abseil. She interlaced her fingers to stop herself brushing away the white specks on his dark shirt.

            ‘But if a customer has a query and you can’t find the answer in these, either see me or Janine, and if we’re not here, call the supplier or manufacturer direct. Don’t worry, it won’t take you long to learn everything’ The smile he beamed at her was genuine, and a few of the knots in her stomach unwound. ‘The photos of your home you sent with your application indicate you seem to have a natural flair for co-ordination,’ he continued, ‘so let me know if you have any suggestions on setting up the various displays.’

            It was an open invitation but Ellie hesitated, afraid to be seen as pushy, especially on her first day. But she indicated the rows of shelving that contained cushions, curtains, table runners, vases, artificial flowers and other decorations. ‘Would you mind if I used some of the stock and made a few changes?’

‘Go ahead,’ Richard said, and turned to answer the phone as it began to ring.

            Ellie walked towards the soft furnishings that beckoned like lustrous jewels, a tiny glow of excitement growing in her chest.

The euphoria of Richard’s praise stayed with Ellie as she drove home. She hung her keys on the hallway hook and smiled at Damien as he slumped in the lounge, glass in hand, swirling the ice through the bourbon.

            ‘Richard loved the changes I made to the displays. He said I’m going to be a real asset to the company. That I must have been a great interior designer.’

            ‘Throwing a few flowers in a vase doesn’t make you a bloody interior designer,’ Damien snarled. ‘If you’d done more than draped yourself around the house looking decorative and going out playing at charity queen and gone back to work years ago and earned some money we wouldn’t have ended up in this mess.’

Ellie’s jaw dropped at his words. Something inside her shrivelled and died, and anger grew in its place. ‘You’re the one who was sucked in, Damien. That’s why we ended up in this mess. Your greed was greater than your common sense.’

He banged the glass onto the coffee table, splashing its contents. Bourbon trickled down the chrome table leg and soaked into the white rug beneath.

Before he could say anything, Ellie shook her head at him, trying to stop the bitter words that had festered inside her for weeks, but failing. ‘You didn’t even have the guts to tell me until the day before it would become public knowledge.’

The anger on his face almost made her cringe, but he pushed past her, snatched the car keys from the hook and stormed into the garage. She heard the roller door rise, the car start and drive away.

She was trembling so much it took her several minutes to realise that he’d taken her car. His wasn’t there. She was so used to him not being home that that fact hadn’t registered when she’d driven in. Now she remembered they didn’t own the cars, they were leased. And there was probably no more money to make the payments. Her world began crumbling. And the words that had haunted her for months began again. The afraid words, the words that couldn’t be said, the words that weren’t said because they were the truth but they would hurt too much and things would change and never be the same again.

The I don’t love you anymore words; the There’s nothing left between us, Damien words; the It’s over words. The words that had lived in her mind but she hadn’t had the courage to admit the truth of, let alone utter. Now she was forced to acknowledge her life had been confined to the world she had created in his emotional absence, and she’d been afraid to leave the imaginary security it represented.

            She stared out across the manicured lawn and felt as though each perfect blade of grass was laid like a fence post to trap her. Trap her in a prison she was struggling to escape from but didn’t know how to put the key in the lock. Or even where the lock was.

            But she knew the key was within her grasp. Knew only she could use it.

            The sound of the doorbell ringing zapped through her like an electric charge. She waited a moment for her heartbeat to slow, pulled her features into an expression she hoped approached normal, and went to the door.

            ‘Surprise! We’ve come to help you celebrate your first day on the job.’

            Ellie stared. Cass and Kandy, hands full of Chinese takeaway containers and bottles of wine, grinned at her. Seconds passed. Their grins faded. Ellie realised she hadn’t moved, hadn’t allowed her mind to register there was someone – two someones – who cared about her and wanted the best for her. With a cry of joy and gratitude she threw her arms around them, squashing plastic and getting jabbed in the breast by a wine cork.

            ‘Well, that’s a lot better,’ Kandy joked. ‘I thought for a minute there we’d come to the wrong house. Is Damien home?’

            Ellie disentangled herself and shook her head. Before, she’d wanted to cry. Now, she needed to vent, to rip away her facade of a happy marriage and face reality. Words spewed out like lava as she ushered Cass and Kandy into the rumpus room and took her best wine glasses from the bar cupboard. The flow of words didn’t stop until she’d gathered plates and cutlery and placed them on the coffee table next to where her friends were sitting.

            Kandy took the lids off the containers and poured wine into the glasses. She handed a glass to Ellie. ‘So what are you going to do about it?’

            Honesty time. ‘I don’t know.’

            ‘What do you want to do?’ Cass, this time, brown eyes intent, sending hugging vibes.

            ‘I don’t know. I really don’t.’

            ‘It’s the old freeze, fight or flight syndrome,’ Kandy sipped thoughtfully, staring at the wine as though it were transmitting some kind of wisdom. ‘You’ve been frozen for long enough. You either fight if you think there’s anything left worth fighting for, or flee.’

            ‘It’s not that simple. How can I leave Damien now? He’s lost everything, how can I be that cruel?’

            Cass helped herself to a portion of sweet and sour pork. ‘And people like my mother will automatically assume you’ve left him because he’s broke,’ she sighed. ‘But you have to do what’s best for you, Ellie.’

            ‘Whatever that is.’ She was silent for a moment, even the aroma of beef and black bean not distracting her from her thoughts. ‘I thought it was hard going through all this sort of angst when I was a teenager, but it’s no easier now.’

            ‘Yeah,’ Kandy sighed, ‘getting older doesn’t make it any easier.’

            Deciding she needed to lighten the atmosphere, Ellie dug her in the ribs. ‘Older?’ she cried. ‘You’re just a young pup.’

            Kandy laughed. ‘I’m old enough to remember the Alvin Purple movie. Hell, that gave me a laugh. There’s nothing funnier than a man flashing a little penis to try to catch a woman’s interest. Reminded me of the boy next door when I was eight years old. He showed me his behind the chook house and his Dad’s old white duck had a go at it. Every time I hear the expression “little pecker” I remember his little pink dick with the duck attached.’

            ‘Was he badly hurt?’

            ‘Poor little bugger couldn’t sit down for a day. His mother gave him a belting for being so rude.’

            She smiled at the memory, then continued. ‘You know, I’ve never been able to figure out why a man thinks if he stands there and wiggles his willie that women will salivate. Perhaps it’s the modern equivalent of the Neanderthal swinging his club.’

            ‘As long as he doesn’t do it while he’s wearing socks,’ Cass laughed. ‘A naked man wearing socks has no credibility whatsoever.’

            ‘Bit like those women wearing only high heels and a neck choker in blue movies.’ Kandy smirked. ‘I tried it once. Ripped a hole in the sheet and damn near punctured the waterbed.’

            ‘What did Phillip think about that?’

            ‘Phillip?’ Kandy’s laughter echoed in the large room. ‘If I wore anything smaller than a full-length nightie to bed he’d have a heart attack. My skiing instructor, on the other hand,’ she winked, ‘had a far more adventurous streak.’

            ‘Kandy, I’ve never asked this before, and you can tell me to mind my own business if you like, but … ’ Ellie hesitated for a moment, ‘why do you … cheat on Phillip?’

            In the three years she’d known her, Ellie had never seen Kandy’s good humour flag, but now she toyed with the short curls behind her ear and rubbed the wine glass against her bottom lip as though unsure she should let the words out. ‘I married Phillip because I loved him, and also for security. Not the financial kind,’ she hurriedly added as she realised how her words could be interpreted. ‘Phillip was such a gentleman. He never pressured me for sex. Refused nicely when I offered it. He courted me,’ she smiled as though the memory came from a place she’d long forgotten, ‘made me feel worthwhile, as though I mattered, I wasn’t just a good lay.’

            Kandy stared at a spot somewhere behind Ellie’s head as silence ate into the room. Ellie glanced across at Cass, and saw her looking at Kandy with a compassion that made her feel ashamed for having asked.

            ‘Trouble is,’ Kandy continued softly, ‘Phillip is a gentleman. A gentleman with a very low libido. He’s not in the least bit worried if we never make love.’ As though realising her words were falling into a pool of sympathetic silence, Kandy tipped her glass and gulped its contents. ‘Back to my original question.’ She said and turned to Ellie. ‘What are you going to do?’

            ‘I don’t know.’ It was the truth as much as a way to avoid answering, but Ellie realised she could no longer pretend her marriage was happy and stable. Trouble was, she simply didn’t know what she wanted to do about it. Leaving from something was different from going to something else. She’d spent so many years in inertia she wasn’t sure she could get herself out. Getting a job had given her a certain amount of courage, but leaving Damien under the current circumstances was a cruelty she couldn’t bring herself to do to him.

            ‘Well, let’s just celebrate you joining the ranks of the employed,’ Cass said and raised her glass.

            As the cheerful clink of three glasses sang in the room, Ellie felt a reassurance that almost settled the disquiet in her chest.

            It was only later that night that she wondered about Kandy’s description of her relationship with her husband. If Phillip was such a prude, surely he wouldn’t tolerate Kandy’s infidelity? Or maybe he simply didn’t believe she was cheating on him. Some people were very good at ignoring the obvious. Then she thought of her relationship with Damien and realised that, perhaps like she had done, Phillip was choosing to ignore the obvious.


Chapter Five

When Ellie awoke next morning, Damien’s side of the bed was empty. Empty and obviously hadn’t been slept in. Fear clutching her stomach, she ran to the phone and dialled his mobile number. Relief surged through her as he answered.

            ‘Where are you?’ she asked.

            ‘At Jim’s. I stayed here last night. I wasn’t game to drive. I was over the limit.’

            Jim Ethan. Her mind skittered, putting a face to the name. Early forties, driven, always alert for a quick way to make money. Not someone she’d ever felt comfortable with but tolerated because he’d been important to Damien. Or Damien’s business. ‘I was worried. You didn’t come home.’ She didn’t say that she’d been concerned that he might do something more foolish than driving dangerously. Once, she’d never considered he might harm himself, but she didn’t know him well enough any more to dismiss the possibility. At least he still had friends who would let him stay the night, unlike those who had disappeared as fast as the man who had ripped him off.

            ‘Sorry. I had some things to do. We need to talk. I’ll be home about lunch time.’

            ‘I’ll be at work.’

            There was a slight pause, then, ‘Yes. You will, won’t you.’ There was no derision in the words, just a tired sadness. Then he ended the call.

Ellie was grateful the day turned out to be a busy one, with interested customers and new furniture needing to be assembled and paperwork to be processed. But all the activity didn’t stop the worms of worry burrowing into her stomach. By the time Cass had picked her up from the store and dropped her home, the prospect of really talking with Damien had taken on nightmarish proportions.

            ‘Don’t let him bully you,’ Cass said as Ellie got out of the car, and the choice of words struck Ellie.

            ‘Do you think Damien bullies me?’

            Cass’s expression said diplomacy was no longer necessary. ‘He’s been more subtle in the past, but lately he’s started to sound like your father.’

            The observation hit Ellie like a fist to the chest. Until his death two years ago, her father had successfully undermined her self-confidence with his constant putdowns on everything from her “lack of artistic talent” to her poor parenting skills where Miranda was concerned. She sometimes wondered how her mother had ever got the guts to divorce her father. Even after his second affair she had taken him back, and after the divorce he had remained a dominating factor in all their lives.

            With more clarity than she wanted to admit to, she realised she must have inherited more than her mother’s physique and colouring. Stuff cracking the DNA code, she thought, scientists need to identify the submissive gene some women were born with and blast the damn thing out of existence.

            She gave Cass a thumbs-up that looked more determined than she felt, and walked into the house. To her surprise, the aroma of potato bake wafted from the kitchen. It dragged her back to memories of long-ago barbecues before Damien’s culinary tastes became as exotic as his choice of business colleagues and friends.

            Damien stood at the sink, apron over his Van Heusen shirt and City Club trousers, marinading two fillet steaks. Deja vu washed over Ellie, but the pang of love that used to hit her when she saw him taking over the stainless steel and tiled sterility that masqueraded as a family kitchen didn’t follow. No emotion did, not anger or pleasure or even mild irritation that he looked so at ease when it had been years since he’d done more than drop bread into the toaster.

            ‘How was work?’ he asked, and she blinked in surprise. Yesterday she would have delighted in telling him, today it felt like something that was none of his business. ‘Busy,’ she said. She wanted to kick off her shoes and ease her aching calf muscles, but the extra height, small though it was, allowed her the illusion of being in control of herself and the trepidation at what was to come.

            ‘Why don’t you go and change into something …’ Damien hesitated, and she saw his realisation that adding ‘more comfortable’ could be interpreted as meaning more than the innocuous suggestion he’d intended. ‘The steaks shouldn’t take long to cook.’

            Ellie nodded. Her shoulders tensed further as she walked to their bedroom. She put her handbag and keys on the chest of drawers, slipped out of her shoes, and resisted the urge to fall onto the bed and crawl beneath the covers and not emerge until she felt up to coping with whatever Damien had to say. Which was probably never, she sighed.

            Ten minutes and a hot shower to get the kinks from her shoulders later, she donned a deep green velour tracksuit, rejected the need to boost her confidence by wearing high-heeled sandals and settled for comfortable slip-ons. Damien had set the table and was turning the steaks when she walked back into the kitchen. Ellie poured red wine into the two glasses on the table. The cosy domesticity should have been a welcome relief from the tension of the past few weeks, but the uneasiness in the room was almost palpable. Damien wanted to talk. Much as she’d thought that was what she wanted, Ellie realised that it had been so long since they’d talked on an intimate level that the thought of doing so was terrifying.

            Damien took the potato bake from the oven, and with a smile that didn’t match the wariness in his eyes, placed it on a trivet on the table. When he took a bowl of tossed salad from the fridge, memories flashed through Ellie’s mind – Sunday lunches on the patio, barbecue sizzling, children playing, satiated with good food, wine and love. But it was like watching flickering images on an old newsreel – disjointed and distant, another time, another life. Her chest squeezed so tight she felt she couldn’t breathe. Now that she had finally admitted to herself that there was nothing left between them, that she no longer loved him, surely Damien wasn’t trying to re-kindle what they’d once shared?

            ‘Sit down. I’ll get the steaks,’ he said, and she obediently sat, reluctant to be part of what was beginning to feel like a farce but needing to play it out to the end.

            As they ate, Damien told her how swiftly their finances had been eroding, though he took no blame for his spending of the past few weeks and Ellie kept silent rather than point this out. She still knew him well enough to know he was leading up to something, and it was probably something she didn’t want to hear.

            When he’d chewed the last morsel of his food, he leaned back in his chair and drank the last of his wine. ‘Jim had a proposition for me.’

            Ellie looked at him, waiting, fork poised, not sure if she could continue to eat while he revealed what it was that had brought about his change in attitude. ‘He needs someone to run his Sydney office and he’s offered me the job. He’s also offered to buy our house. At a very good price.’

            He let the words hang in the air, his eyes searching Ellie’s face for her reaction, though she was sure he had already decided what he was going to do. Selling the house wasn’t a problem – she’d known that would happen if their money problems weren’t resolved, or if she left him. She waited for him to say that he wanted her to go with him to Sydney, but he continued, ‘You were right, Ellie, when you said we don’t talk, really talk, any more. We haven’t for years. I guess we both buried our heads in the sand. Maybe we needed this crisis to make us see that it just isn’t working anymore.’

            Ellie’s grip on her fork tightened as her world tilted. They were her words, but they were coming out of Damien’s mouth. He looked like he was waiting for her input, but she found she couldn’t speak. She lowered the fork and looked at him, mouth still slightly open, mind absorbing the ramifications of what he was saying.

            Damien cleared his throat and continued. ‘Sometimes relationships simply run their course. We’ve really not had much in common for a long time. The girls are grown up, it won’t affect them now if we go our own ways.’

            It dawned on Ellie that there was something about his words that sounded rehearsed, as though they’d been phrased to be as emotionless as possible. As though by using her own words back at her she would be made to see the logic in what he was saying. She found her voice. ‘And what do you … propose … we do now?’

            Relief lowered Damien’s shoulders and he slumped briefly in the chair before leaning forward, eyes bright, his features animated in a way she hadn’t seen in a long time. ‘What Jim’s offering for the house will pay off the mortgage and leave enough to buy you a little car so you can get to work. I can’t afford to renew the lease on the one you have now.’

            ‘And where will I live?’

            ‘With Miranda. After all, it’s my father’s house she’s living in. The rent she pays barely covers the rates and some maintenance.’

            The air rushed from Ellie’s lungs. Miranda. In Damien’s father’s house. With all her drop-in friends from the soup kitchen and kooky schemes and housekeeping that resembled Frank Spencer having a good day. And Damien’s father, Bert, escaping from the Alzheimers section of the nursing home whenever he got the chance and coming back to claim the house he’d never wanted to leave that beckoned him with fragmented memories of the wife he’d loved till the day she died. At least Bert hadn’t let love slip from his life, she thought bitterly. And living with Miranda was preferable to living with Pru and her equally up-tight husband Rodney. Or going with Damien.

            She marvelled at the control in her voice as she asked, ‘When will all this happen?’

            ‘As soon as possible. Jim’s manager is leaving next week, so I’ll have to look for somewhere to live down there, and …’ As though realising Ellie wasn’t sharing his enthusiasm, he faltered, then reached over and covered her hand where it lay on the table. ‘I knew you’d be sensible about this. You’ve always done what’s best.’

            Ellie snatched her hand away as though she’d been burned. She didn’t feel sensible. She felt shocked, numb, as though her mind couldn’t take in what her ears had heard. ‘I’m going out.’ The words fell from her lips as though spoken by someone else, but Damien nodded and waved a dismissive hand at the plates. ‘I’ll clean up.’

            Clean up. Clean up! The words echoed in Ellie’s mind as she picked up her handbag, grabbed the car keys, and drove to Cass’s house. Of course he would clean up. Clean up the mess he’d made of their marriage by sweeping it away and moving. Moving away. To Sydney. Moving on. Past her. Like she was a mistake he’d just figured out a way to rectify without it showing up in the accounts or unbalancing the ledger.

            All right, she’d been on the verge of leaving him, but at least she would have done it with a bit more compassion than he’d shown. When had he become so clinical? So capable of … of … cutting her out of his life like a surgeon removing a tumour?

            Her disbelief and anger grew on the short drive to Cass’s house.

‘It was so bloody civilised! I couldn’t believe it. He’d worked everything out, even to where I should live once he was free of me.’ Ellie paced Cass’s kitchen floor, short thumping steps because there was not enough room to stride like she felt like doing. ‘He’s probably over there right now, packing his things, packing my things …’ She stopped and looked at Cass. ‘For heavens sake, Cass, say something.’

            ‘Coffee or tea or something stronger?’

            Ellie opened her mouth to ask, ‘What?’ but saw Cass’s knowing expression and laughed instead. ‘I should be grateful, shouldn’t I. My decision has been made for me.’ She plonked onto a chair. ‘Guess I’m just pissed off that the decision wasn’t mine to make in the end. And the way Damien was so calculating about it. And living with Miranda …’

            ‘You could always stay here for a while,’ Cass offered.

            ‘Thanks, but I want to keep you as a friend, Cass. I know Joe’s a laid-back bloke, and he’s like you, he has a heart of gold, but you don’t need a third party underfoot. I can’t afford to rent anywhere on my own so I’ll just have to learn to live with Miranda.’

            When she drove back home, Ellie saw that Damien had moved his belongings into the spare bedroom. She didn’t know whether to be grateful for his diplomacy or upset that he appeared to be in a hurry to end what little remained of their marriage.

As she eyed the two-bedroom weatherboard house Damien’s father, Bert, had built for his bride after World War II, Ellie’s misgivings grew. She’d phoned Miranda and asked if it was all right to call around after she finished work, and Miranda had invited her to stay for dinner. Ellie had stressed that she needed to talk with her alone, and she could imagine Miranda shrugging as she said, ‘That’s fine.’

            Cottage would have been a better description of the house, Ellie thought as she pushed open the rusty gate and walked the cracked concrete path to the front door. Miranda kept the lawn mowed and the garden weeded, and had planted some camellias that were now covered in pink and white blooms. The fading afternoon light was kind to the paintwork, disguising the slow disintegration into peeling patches and fine powder. Ellie had wanted Damien to repaint it when Miranda had moved in, but he refused, saying that as soon as his father was no longer alive he would sell the house for removal and build units on the land. It was one thing in his favour, she thought. With his enduring power of attorney he could have done that as soon as his father had entered the nursing home, but occasionally he drove the old man back for a visit, keeping alive his dream that his beloved wife Eugenia was still waiting for him.

            Ellie stepped onto the tiny porch and raised her hand to knock.

            ‘Hi, Mum,’ Miranda opened the door, blonde hair caught up in a ponytail, wearing jeans and tee-shirt and with a hand towel flung over one shoulder. She gave Ellie a quick smile and ushered her into the lounge room. Miranda hadn’t changed anything much in the house, just replaced some of her grandparents’ paintings with woven wall hangings in purples and pinks and dream-catchers that twirled lazily in the dim light.

Miranda flicked a switch, and as light flooded the room Ellie wished she hadn’t. The floral tapestry lounge suite had faded to a dull motley of maroons and blues, and a purple throw hid the threadbare spots. It reminded Ellie of a kids’ birthday party after a food fight. Miranda had obviously tried to tidy up – there were spaces on the coffee table between the piles of The Big Issue magazine and books about people who had given their lives to helping others. Bert’s old television still sat in its cabinet in the corner, landline phone on top and the remote a paperweight on newspaper cuttings next to it.

‘I’ll get you a drink.’ Miranda drifted towards the kitchen. ‘White wine?’

‘Yes, please.’ Ellie sat on the lounge, pleased no puffs of dust emitted from the sinking foam.

Miranda returned with a bottle and two glasses, plopped sideways onto the other end of the lounge and tucked a foot under one knee. ‘So tell me,’ she said as she poured the wine and gave Ellie a glass, ‘what’s so important you couldn’t tell me over the phone?’

            After a very long sip of wine, Ellie gave an abbreviated version of what had occurred the previous evening.

And watched her daughter’s eyes widen in shock.


Chapter Six

‘You’re joking! You’re going to live here?’ Miranda pushed a long strand of blonde hair from her eyes and looked at her mother.

            Ellie raised a surprised eyebrow. ‘I know it’s not a big house, darling, but I don’t have much choice. Besides,’ she frowned, ‘I thought you’d be more upset about your father and I breaking up.’

            A flick of her hand indicated the extent of Miranda’s anguish on that score. ‘I’ve been expecting it for years. Honestly, Mum, I don’t know how you put up with him for this long. You played doormat and he wiped his feet on you.’

            If Ellie’s jaw wasn’t falling before, it did now. ‘I wasn’t a doormat. I was a wife, a … a …’

            ‘Doormat. A very lovable doormat,’ Miranda hastened to assure her. ‘Mum, I know it’s going to be a hard time for you, but it’s the best thing that could have happened, honestly. You and Dad have been like puppets acting out a play for years, the more you acquiesce to what he wants the bossier he gets. Marriages are supposed to be partnerships, not dictatorships. Yeah,’ Miranda held up her hand as Ellie tried to protest, ‘I know Dad doesn’t yell at you, he’s more subtle than that, but he always gets his own way. Because you let him.’

            ‘You’ve never mentioned any of this before.’

            ‘Who am I to talk? I can’t even keep a boyfriend.’

            ‘Mirie, I’m sorry, I’ve been so wrapped up in my own problems I haven’t even asked how you are.’

            ‘Well, if I didn’t go on the food run and see how badly off other people are, I’d probably be depressed. But at least I have a roof over my head and can afford to buy food, and even cheap wine,’ she looked hopefully at Ellie, ‘which I hope isn’t too bad?’ Her face lightened at Ellie’s wink of assurance. ‘Then not being able to get a job isn’t getting me down too much.’

            ‘Have you thought about going back to uni? You could complete your arts degree.’

            ‘Mum, in this economic climate, arts graduates are waiting tables. That’s if they can beat the engineering graduates to the jobs. Anyway,’ she slid off the lounge and stood up, ‘I’d better check on dinner. Don’t want my famous chicken casserole to burn. It’d be a waste of some very cheap off-cuts.’

Half an hour later Ellie pushed her plate away with a satisfied smile. ‘You’re a good cook,’ she told Miranda and watched the pleasure on her daughter’s face at the compliment. She waited a moment then asked, ‘Miranda, how do you feel about me moving in with you? You’ve had your own space for a few years now, and it’s not going to be easy to share it. Particularly with your mother.’

            ‘Well, most twenty-three-year-olds would freak out at the thought, but you and I have always got along okay. And it’s not like you have a choice. If you stayed with Pru it wouldn’t be any different to living with Dad.’ Miranda chuckled and Ellie realised she’d glimpsed the hastily-concealed shudder that had run down her back at the thought. Just telling Pru about the break-up over the phone had been bad enough. Pru, as always, had taken Damien’s side, telling Ellie that she should have been more understanding of the pressures he was under.

            ‘Plus you now have a job,’ Miranda continued. ‘Did I tell you that I’m proud of you for doing that, Mum?’

            The lump that formed in Ellie’s throat made speech impossible, but a small flame of hope for the future kindled inside her.

The weeks that followed became a mad scramble of packing and moving and cleaning out the spare bedroom in Bert’s house that Miranda had turned into an office of sorts. Miranda’s computer desk now resided in a corner of her not-very-large bedroom, and Ellie’s guilt at disturbing her daughter’s life was only alleviated by Miranda’s cheerful acceptance of the circumstances and her assertion that at least Ellie was better at housekeeping than she was.

            To Ellie’s surprise, her mother and brother had taken the news about the breakup with almost philosophical acceptance, and she’d been forced to consider that the sorry state of her marriage must have been only too obvious.

            Between work and packing, she hadn’t seen much of Damien, and she suspected his late nights going over his new job details with Jim were more to keep out of her way than business-related. She kept telling herself that it was a good thing, but a terrible ache had replaced the uncertainty she’d felt over the past couple of years and she felt less like she was going forward into a new life than running away from the old one. If it hadn’t been for Cass and Kandy and their never-ceasing encouragement, not to mention their skills at packing boxes and forcing her to make decisions about keeping sentimental items, Ellie doubted she would have coped with it all. Particularly when it came to packing family photos. What do you do with reminders of a once-happy marriage, she’d asked, and watched as Cass packed them all into a box and sealed and labelled it “Family photos – to be opened in the future when Ellie feels it’s the right time”.

            Richard, her boss, had been sympathetic, but she hadn’t accepted his offer to take time off without pay. Her share of the tiny profit from the house sale had bought her a second-hand Magna that at least had hope of not falling apart if it hit a bump, which was more than could be said of Miranda’s ancient Cortina, but there wasn’t much left after that.

            Damien flew to Sydney four days before the removalists took their furniture into storage. Ellie had dreaded this final parting, this death of a marriage with no last rites or decent burial. She didn’t know what she expected – tears, recriminations, whatever – but it was as casual and emotionless as Damien’s declaration that he agreed with her that they didn’t talk any more and should “go their own ways”.

            He gave her a quick hug and promised to keep in touch. For some obscure reason that she couldn’t justify, Ellie felt compelled to watch him leave. He walked to Jim Ethan’s car with a spring in his step that she hadn’t seen in a long time. He got in the car and she started to close the front door. As the car sped off he glanced back, and she caught a glimpse of his face before she closed the door.

            She thought she saw an expression of deep sorrow on his features.

            But perhaps it was just a shadow from an overhanging tree branch.

            Or wishful thinking.

At the same moment as Ellie stood, hand on the door knob, emotions swirling with the reality that she was truly on her own, a young woman who had spent her life feeling isolated from those who should have cared for her stuffed her meagre possessions into a battered backpack and scurried from the squat she shared with four other people.

            Cherilyn Manning had once looked up the meaning of her name on the internet and had been struck by the irony of it. “Beloved” had never applied to her.

Blood from her split lip had congealed on her chin and she scratched at it gently, careful not to pull too much and draw the skin tighter across her bruised cheek. She was grateful the mole close to her eye had missed the ferocity of the attack. If it got knocked it was hard to stop the bleeding and took ages to heal.

Jackson would probably look for her for a while, but he’d soon find another girl to share his bed in exchange for the drugs he could provide. Leaving wasn’t easy, this squat at least had running water, but even a cardboard box under a bridge was preferable to the beating she’d suffered last night.

Ellie was sure Miranda’s toaster had been designed by the Air Force. Every time it ejected the toast you had to send out a rescue team to find it. And it also had the inconsistency of a politician – one morning the bread was barely singed, the next it was charcoaled. She reached behind the offending appliance for the blackened bread and winced as her arm brushed the metal top. She threw the toast into the bin, grateful the smoke alarm hadn’t gone off, and resolved she would go to the storage unit after work and get her own toaster. She hadn’t wanted to offend Miranda by bringing her own kitchen appliances, but she couldn’t afford to waste time every morning by having to battle a toaster with a personality crisis.

            Coffee would have to do this morning or she was going to be late. She gulped down the now lukewarm liquid, rushed to the bathroom, cleaned her teeth, applied makeup, and ran to her bedroom and dressed. Her hair resisted her efforts to wind it into its usual French roll and she cursed the delay.

            ‘Why don’t you get your hair cut?’ Miranda stood in the doorway, arms hugging her pink satin pyjamas, more asleep than awake. ‘You’d look a lot younger. Might even score yourself a toyboy.’ She laughed at her own joke and Ellie heard the slop-slop of her Ugg boots as she walked to the bathroom.

            With an exasperated sigh, Ellie grabbed two hair clips and caught the recalcitrant strands so they formed wings on either side of her head. The effect wasn’t bad, but not as practical as she liked. If she leaned over, her hair would fall forward and get in the way.

            By the time she arrived at work, Miranda’s suggestion sounded more and more like a good idea. Her life had changed drastically, might as well go the whole way.

‘Mum! You look fantastic.’

            Ellie smiled at Miranda’s words and pulled at the wisps of hair around her ear. ‘You really think so?’

            ‘Absolutely.’ Miranda abandoned the vegetables she’d been chopping and walked over to where Ellie hesitated in the kitchen doorway. She walked around Ellie, nodding approvingly. ‘I love the way the hairdresser’s feathered it around your face, and you’ll only need a little mousse to keep a bit of bounce in the top. Sits well at the back too, curves into your neck. You should have had it cut years ago.’ She went back to the sink. ‘Should have done a lot of things years ago.’

            Ellie wondered if Miranda was right. Perhaps if she’d been more assertive, done more with her life than just drift after the girls had left home, she’d still be living in her own home … and still be married. The ache in her chest deepened.

She walked to her bedroom. It didn’t matter now. She couldn’t go back and undo the past. She shook her head, and laughed at the lightness of her hair. In some crazy way it had been cathartic watching the long blonde strands fall to the floor in the salon. A bit like the twenty kilometre bicycle ride she’d done at sixteen after her first boyfriend had dumped her. She’d thought she’d been in love with him, but aching muscles and a sudden summer storm had dispelled that notion in a couple of hours.

Perhaps that’s what she needed now – some intense physical activity to take her mind off the ache that hadn’t disappeared with Damien’s departure. The tiredness that came with working full-time didn’t make for good sleep, maybe a session at the gym or a long walk would do the trick. The other form of exercise she was missing teased her with possibilities -and problems. The thought of dating at her age was daunting. It had been years since she’d met a man who even vaguely attracted her. Perhaps she’d become too fussy? None of Damien’s colleagues had raised her interest level to the point where she’d even contemplated seeing them in a sexual light.

Maybe … She tried to block the thought, but it kept creeping back like an itch that no amount of scratching would relieve.

Maybe she needed Kandy’s advice.


Chapter Seven

Cass poured the chocolate cake mix into the floured tin and sighed. It was always so tempting when she cooked for Joe. His metabolism disposed of calories as fast as he consumed them, but if she indulged in only a fraction of what he could get away with her clothes quickly appeared to shrink.

            Joe’s work truck growled up the driveway as she put the tin in the oven and set the timer. Before she could put the bowl, beaters and spatula in the sink she heard his esky thump on the laundry tiles, footsteps echo on the polished timber floor, and then his arms went around her from behind and he kissed the side of her neck.

            Warmth that had nothing to do with the oven heat in the room spread through her. She turned in his arms and offered him the spatula. His eyes twinkled, and he bent his head and licked the cake mix from the tip. That did it for Cass. Always had, she thought. That sexy gleam and the slow smile. She moved the spatula away, dumped it and the bowl on the bench and kissed him.

            ‘We have,’ she looked at the oven clock a moment later, ‘twenty minutes.’

            He smiled again. ‘I’ll be waiting.’

            ‘I’ll just take the phone off the hook.’ With Audra’s timing, Cass was sure she’d phone before they’d made it to two-play, let alone foreplay.

            By the time she got to the bedroom, the curtains were drawn, the bedspread flung back, Joe had had a quick shower and was naked. Naked, and more than ready.

            Cass stripped and slid across the cool sheets. Seconds later she was giving mental thanks for oestrogen cream as Joe began a rhythm that curled her mouth in an appreciative smile. ‘If you hadn’t been so eager,’ she purred and arched into him, ‘I could have covered it in cake mix.’

            She watched the way his eyes gleamed at the thought, then added mischievously, ‘But that doesn’t mean I would have licked it off.’

            His rhythm faltered as he laughed, and Cass felt answering laughter well up. Well up and spill over, like a schoolgirl caught in a fit of the giggles. The more she giggled, the more Joe laughed. And the more he laughed, the harder it was for him to keep his erection.

            ‘You’re shrinking,’ Cass gulped as she tried to suppress her mirth. But it didn’t matter, because it was wonderful to laugh with him, to love him, to feel his arms wrap around her as they clung together on the bed. And when their laughter had died and the loving continued, she was glad she’d had the fore-thought to turn the oven temperature lower.

Later, as Joe sat in the kitchen with a mug of coffee and slice of cake and Cass peeled vegetables for their evening meal, Cass’s thoughts turned to Ellie. Although Ellie’s relationship with Damien had long ago become almost non-existent, they had a shared history and ties that would forever connect them, and she worried that Ellie had taken the break-up too well.

            ‘Bruce had a chat with me today,’ Joe’s words interrupted her musing. ‘Seems he wants to start another project.’

            Cass had met Joe’s boss a few times. A builder who specialised in renovations, particularly unit buildings, he was a block of a man whose squarish shape was accentuated by his peg-like teeth and the severe crewcut of his prematurely greying hair. Joe had started working for him as a contract carpenter twelve years before and had taken on the foreman’s role on some of the projects. ‘And?’ she prompted Joe as he took another bite of cake.            ‘He’s bought a three-storey block of flats in New Farm.’ Joe paused slightly. ‘They’re pretty old – red brick, stairs only, no lift. He wants to bring them back to their former glory.’ He made a face that only lacked eye-rolling to complete his disbelief in the project.

            ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Cass asked. ‘There’s a real movement now for old things and times when life was slower and people weren’t so stressed.’

            ‘You know how he usually just spruces the flats up, throws in a new kitchen and bathroom and sells the whole building to an investor? Well, this time he wants to go the whole hog – sell them fully furnished so buyers know they’re getting something authentic. Have them fitted out with classy interiors and furnishings that the poshies would have had in those days.’

            Cass finished peeling a carrot and raised an eyebrow. ‘That will cost him a lot more.’

            ‘Yeah. That’s the problem. He doesn’t want to go overboard hiring some expensive interior designer and then find he’s spent more on the whole project than what he can sell it for.’

            Bells started ringing in Cass’s mind. ‘And so -’

            ‘So I told him about Ellie. Bruce won’t pay a lot but it would be something for her to start her business with – sort of an example of what she can do.’

            ‘She could take before and after photos, and show those to prospective clients.’ Cass felt her enthusiasm rising. ‘And build her own website and use them on that.’ She broke a piece off Joe’s slice of cake, popped it into her mouth and let the warm chocolate flavour satisfy her craving taste buds. ‘I’ll phone her tonight and let her know.’

Ellie put down her mobile and rose from the chair she’d swear had been stuffed with horsehair from the stallions that had taken Ben Hur’s chariot to victory over Marsala. She rubbed her aching bottom and wished she’d taken the call in her bedroom, but the wall dividing the bedrooms was thin and she hadn’t wanted to disturb Miranda. She looked at Bert’s landline phone gathering dust on the television, and thought of how few times she’d seen her daughter on the phone, landline or mobile, and felt guilty – why didn’t Miranda have friends calling her and chatting for hours like they used to? More guilt stabbed through her. The disconnectedness that had seeped into her marriage like a third party had obviously infiltrated Miranda’s life. Or maybe it was her fault that she hadn’t had a deeply personal conversation with either of her daughters for years.

            She knocked on Miranda’s bedroom door, waited for the faint “Come in” and entered. Miranda was lying on her bed, supported by large purple pillows, reading a magazine.

            ‘Can we talk?’ Ellie wanted to share her excitement at Cass’s news, but needed to connect with Miranda more. Miranda nodded, and drew up her legs so Ellie could sit on the bed. Ellie sat, hesitated, than swung her legs around and sat cross-legged, her jeans stretching tight over her knees.

            ‘What’s up, Mum?’ Miranda put the magazine on the pile on the bedside table.

Ellie noted with surprise that it was The New Scientist. ‘I didn’t know you were interested in science.’

‘Always have been.’

‘Then why didn’t you do it at uni? I know your marks weren’t the highest but you could have gone for one of the easier degrees.’

Miranda shrugged. ‘Pru was always the bright one. And Grandpa always told me I was hopeless.’

‘When did he say that?’ Ellie couldn’t keep the shock out of her voice. Her father had always been hypercritical of her when she was growing up, but she hadn’t realised he had done the same thing to Miranda.

‘When Pru and I would go over and stay with him and Gran.’ Miranda hugged a pillow to her chest.

‘Oh, Mirie, I’m so sorry.’ Ellie wanted to reach out and crush Miranda to her and take away the pain those words would have caused.

‘It’s all right. It’s past history. The old bugger’s dead now. And Gran seemed a lot happier when she visited last year.’

‘Yes, she is a lot happier,’ Ellie agreed, taken aback by the bitterness in Miranda’s tone when calling her grandfather an “old bugger”. ‘Mirie, I wish you would have told me what he was saying to you. It wasn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t true.’

‘But I am hopeless, Mum. I had three years working in a department store and was the only long-term employee who was made redundant in their last slash of employees. And the only work I’ve had since then has been casual and it’s been four months since I’ve had any of that.’ She pushed her chin into the pillow as though trying to stop the flow of words. ‘I keep doing those stupid courses that train you for jobs that don’t exist because no-one’s hiring anyone, I’ve put my CV in at so many businesses they’re sick of the sight of me, and I still can’t get a job.’

‘It must have … upset you … when I got a job.’

‘No. I told you, I’m proud of you for that.’ A tear trickled slowly down her cheek and she dashed it away with the back of her hand. ‘Sorry. It’s not you. It’s just that sometimes being unemployed really gets me down.’

Ellie sat, feeling helpless, knowing nothing she could do could make Miranda feel better about her situation. Or herself. And feeling terrible that she now had the prospect of more work when Miranda had none.

‘What did you want to talk about?’ Miranda asked.

As Ellie told her the scant details she’d got from Cass, an idea grew.

‘Mum, that’s a great opportunity.’ Miranda’s face lit with excitement. ‘Are you going to do it?’

‘To be honest, I’m scared stiff I’ll stuff up. No,’ she said as Miranda started to protest, ‘I know you think I can do it, but it’s been a long time since I’ve done this sort of thing, and there are nine units to refurbish. I can’t afford to give up my job. If this work for Bruce turns out okay then I might consider going full-time as an interior designer, but it will take more money than I have at the moment. But I was thinking,’ she leaned forward, ‘how would you like to help? I couldn’t pay you until I got paid, but it would be something you could put on your CV.’

Miranda looked dubious. ‘I don’t have any qualifications in interior design. And I don’t have any talent.’

‘But you can use a computer and a phone and find out which suppliers have the wallpapers and furniture I’ll need and get prices for me. It will be impossible for me to do that during business hours.’ Ellie saw the moment Miranda started to believe it was possible and said, ‘Cass said she can help with the bookkeeping, but I really can’t do it without you, hon. Please say you’ll help.’

‘Okay. If you think I can.’

‘Great.’ Ellie held out her hand. ‘Shake, partner.’ As Miranda’s fingers touched hers, Ellie realised that it had been a long time since she’d touched her daughter apart from perfunctory cheek kisses at birthdays and Christmas. She thought of Cass and Joe and the way they interacted with their four children, who, although adults now, still hugged when greeting each other. Okay, so she and Damien weren’t “huggy” people, but she wondered if their lack of physical contact was a result of their emotional lack, or the other way around. Not that it mattered anymore with Damien, but she didn’t want to lose her daughters in the same way. She gave Miranda’s hand a gentle squeeze. ‘I love you, you know.’

‘You too.’ Miranda’s words came out as though she was surprised at saying them, but then she leaned forward and gave Ellie a quick hug.

Blinking back sudden tears, Ellie returned the embrace, then rose and walked to the door. ‘Would you like a hot chocolate?’

Miranda nodded. ‘Please. And thanks, Mum … for believing in me.’

‘I always have, Mirie. I just neglected to tell you.’

The next day at work Ellie’s mind buzzed with the possibilities Bruce’s job could open up for her, and the terrifying prospect that she mightn’t be up to the task. At least she didn’t have to outlay any money to purchase samples of materials or trade books or all the other trappings of business. It had been a long time since she’d had to budget, but her limited income now made that essential. It reminded her of the early days of her marriage and the memories brought a surge of loss so fierce she had to fight back tears.

In her lunch break she wrote down what she would need to do for the units: research room decor, wallpapers and paint colours that matched the era when the building was built; source appropriate furniture; look at methods of incorporating modern appliances like dishwashers so they weren’t obvious or look out of place. Her already shaky confidence began to slide even further. So much to do and she barely had enough time after work to fit in what little else she had to do. Thank heavens Miranda had agreed to help.

            She was so engrossed in her thoughts that when her mobile rang she jumped like a startled rabbit. A male with a nasal twang identified himself as Bruce Moloney, Joe’s boss. ‘You’d better have a look at the job first,’ he told her, ‘and see if you’re up to it.’

            Up to it? Tiny hackles of anger rose on Ellie’s neck. It was the sort of thing her father would say, and from what Cass had said, Bruce was only in his forties. ‘That would be a good idea, Bruce,’ she told him. ‘I don’t know what condition the rooms are in. It might not be possible to re-create that authentic early 1920s style without going over your budget.’

            ‘Glad we understand each other, love. I can’t afford to go overboard on this project. How about you come over to the place tomorrow afternoon and I’ll show you around.’

            Ellie grimaced. By the time she finished work it would be at least six o’clock before she could get there. She told Bruce this, and heard his sigh of frustration. Tomorrow was Friday, and she knew from Cass that Bruce went to the pub for a meal on Friday nights. But he gave her the address and said he would meet her there.

            As Ellie drove home that evening, she wondered if a nine-unit refurbishment was too big a job to take on as her first foray back into the world of interior design. But in her current situation, it was probably the only opportunity she would get. Starting a new career had seemed like a good idea when she’d first mentioned it to Cass, but now her years out of the workforce felt like a wasteland she wasn’t sure she had the ability to cross.

Cherilyn couldn’t remember the last time her parents had spoken to her with any trace of affection in their voices. Perhaps they never had. Married through necessity – oh, they were fond of reminding her that her conception had been the cause – they were so busy bemoaning their lot in life and dragging up the son and daughter that had quickly followed her birth that Cherilyn had often felt they wouldn’t notice if she wasn’t there. To prove it, she’d packed her bags when her mother was out and went to stay with a young man she’d met in a nightclub. Two days later her mother had phoned her mobile, called her ungrateful in words that had splintered Cherilyn’s heart, and told her she’d better not come back because she wouldn’t be welcome.

            She pulled her jacket close against her thin chest and tugged the hood further over her forehead. The nights were getting too cold to be outside. She’d have to find some place to doss down soon. The coffee had warmed her, and she looked at the foam cup as though it might magically refill itself. She hated being dependent on the food van, but was grateful for what they provided. Not just the food, but the way the volunteers talked to her like she was worth something. Like she mattered. It was an illusion, she knew that, but it was the only one she had left. She stuffed the remainder of the sandwiches into her backpack. They’d do for breakfast.

            New Farm Park was well lit, but huge Moreton Bay Fig trees danced shadows on the ground and shrubs created dark caves of rustling leaves that offered shelter on a rainless night … or a hiding place where someone could lie in wait. She fingered her bruised cheek and shivered. When Jackson had started using Ice his violent outbursts had increased, and she wouldn’t feel safe until she’d found somewhere she could hide from him. Even then she knew the fear would not go away.

Not until he was dead.

Or in jail.

Her breathing stopped as a low voice asked, ‘Wotcha doin’, Cherilyn?’

Click here for part two. 

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