Authors: Cate Kendall
It was the smell that really knocked her sideways. She was expecting the heat, the smoke and the noise, but not the sickening stench of burning oil and blistering paint mixed with sizzling eucalyptus from nearby trees.
Jess stood numb as the miasma of smoke and the acrid smell wove thick, black plumes around her. It was surreal, it couldn't be happening. It couldn't end like this; all her dreams and hopes burnt to nothing.
She pressed the sting of tears from her eyelids. She put her head up and stared at the purple â red flames leaping into a night sky that was bruised with black smoke.
âStand back, love,' one of the CFA volunteers shouted. âShe's coming down.'
The wrenching squeal of corrugated iron announced the roof's collapse.
The crowd gasped and hurriedly shuffled to the other side of the road. Des and Merle from the supermarket up the road stood distraught in each other's arms. Fat tears on Merle's cheeks glowed orange against the blaze.
The cafe's frontage was the last to go. In her mind Jess saw the ghosts of that afternoon's customers dancing in the haze. Rainbow and Songbird had been there; and Steve the milk-bar guy, laughing and chatting together. Here they all were again, just a few hours later, but now everything had changed.
There was a loud pop as the fryer exploded, sending the stink of burnt chip fat into the night air.
âWhere's Nick?' someone called from the crowd.
Jessica turned wildly to the speaker, then back to the store, terror prickling her skin. Nick had been with her just two hours earlier. He'd left, saying he had work to do. Had he come here to fix that loose floorboard for her? She wasn't sure whether she was going to faint or vomit. Bile rose in her throat.
âGas!' someone shouted and soot-faced men spilled from the shop.
âPlease, there's someone in there, there's someone in the kitchen!' Jess shrieked, her words distorted, breaking in anguish. She rushed towards the inferno, wild with fear. Not Nick; not him too, not after so many losses that year. Not her Nick.
âGet out of there.' A fireman grabbed Jessica and dragged her roughly across the road. âWe checked out the whole place when we got here, there's no one in there.' He held her arms to her side to stop her battering his chest with her fists.
âAre you sure? Are you absolutely definite?' she screamed at him.
âYes we're sure, now stay over here,' the firefighter shouted.
Rainbow ran over to her in the lurid orange light. âWe saw Nick pass our place about an hour ago,' she said, and Jess felt her legs collapse beneath her with relief.
Rainbow and Songbird sat with her in the gutter, holding her, as the chaos continued around them. A series of deafening booms split the air as gas bottles exploded one after the other.
Jess watched it all from the safety of her friends' arms. Tears spilled down Rainbow's face, running under her chin and off the end of her nose, but she ignored them and continued to whisper, âIt's okay, it's okay, it will all be okay' in Jess's ear as she rocked gently beside her. Songbird said nothing, but her arm was firm and strong behind Jess's back.
Jess suddenly felt strangely detached from the scene, as if she were watching it all unfold from above. As the store's weatherboard facade finally gave in, ending its eighty-four-year history, she felt nothing. She was empty. She watched, mesmerised, as the
in General Store blackened first, then the scorched letters fell one by one to the verandah below. The fire was almost like an interactive artwork, she thought; so beautiful in its destructive force.
Then there was nothing but charred timbers and the insatiable flames.
It was all over.
Jessica Wainwright twisted her gingham seersucker skirt around her fingers. It was actually a vintage tablecloth held in place with a chunky leather belt. She hadn't got around to turning it into an actual garment yet. But the look was so eclectic, so funky, so ... Jessica ... that it was actually catching on and some of her younger staff were stealing their mums' tablecloths to emulate her style. But on Jessica it looked anything other than homemade craft, as she'd teamed the skirt with a TL Wood short-sleeved Montego cardi, from which long, white peasant-blouse sleeves billowed. She'd loved fashion ever since her dad had given her a biography of Coco Chanel when she was a teenager. The sophisticated designer had quickly become her creative idol.
But fashion was the furthest thing from her mind right now. She sat, stunned, at one of the tables in her cafe, struggling to take in what she had just heard.
âWhat do you think about coming to work with Mimsy and me at Still Life?' The words echoed in her head. Jimmy McConnell's Hugo Boss suit sat perfectly on his square shoulders; his hands swept appreciatively over her latest artwork â a sculpture in found recyclables. She could see he meant business; that he really wanted her to work at the prestigious inner-city design firm at which he was the headhunter and second-in-charge. It made her nervous. She wasn't the headhunted type. Of course her nervousness might just be about having Jimmy so close again. He certainly still smelled as good, looked as good, and â she put her fingers up to her face to hide a sudden rush of blood to her cheeks â probably felt as good as he used to.
She made a pretence of adding more sugar to her latte to hide her glowing face. For God's sake, her crush on him had been twenty years ago, this was embarrassing.
âI'll be back in a tick,' she said, jumping up from the table and knocking her latte over in the process. âI'd, er, better check on the kitchen.'
Jimmy gave a low seductive laugh and casually threw some napkins on the mess, waving her away. âDo what you gotta do, girl. I'll be here.'
Jess scurried into the storeroom off the kitchen to give herself a moment to gather her thoughts. She stared at the boxes of organic vegies and packets of wholemeal flour as she remembered the first time she'd seen Jimmy, at design school in Melbourne. He'd been in the year above her and they'd moved in different circles, but she'd noticed him straightaway in the halls. With his confident, charismatic air and striking looks, he was hard to miss.
They'd fooled around briefly at a party one night when they were both drunk. Jess blushed again thinking back on the inebriated fumble that had been enough to ignite her crush into a full-blown obsession. She'd spent the next few months checking her answering machine constantly, dying a little bit with each disappointment. She stopped going out, just in case he rang. Even when he took up with the leggy Stephanie Smyth she still remained convinced he'd be hers one day. And she'd relived that one passionate evening over and over until the memory got worn out.
Then socialist, idealist and egotist Danny Mulroney had walked into her life, Jimmy had graduated from design school and their paths hadn't crossed again. But now Jimmy McConnell was out there in her store, all these years later and as charming as ever. She peeked around the storeroom to check him out again. His dimples were a little deeper and although his hair had a sprink ling of salt and pepper, he still wore it tousled and long, thrust behind his ears with lank locks falling over his forehead.
Maturity had sharpened his looks, making him even more gorgeous than she remembered. She noticed with pleasure that his eyes were more penetrating, his flirting more polished and his laugh lines more plentiful. He obviously worked out: he was broad across the chest and finished at the waist in a very tidy V-frame. He certainly still had his x-factor and it was having the same effect on her as it had two decades ago.
She took a deep breath, straightened her skirt and smoothed her wayward curls before walking slowly back to the table.
His eyes stayed on her as she crossed the room, nodding appreciatively at her.
As she sat down, he rubbed his goatee and cocked his head to one side, staring at her enquiringly, his grin forcing her to smile back.
âSo what do you think, Jess? I've been admiring all your publicity.' He inclined his head towards the magazine articles hung on the wall.
âOh, well, a friend framed them for me, and insisted I hang them, so you know...' Her voice trailed off. It had been fun to have her artwork and cafe profiled in magazines and the weekend papers, but it didn't mean she was a serious artist or anything.
âThe gallery space works well,' Jimmy said. âHow much of your own work do you sell here?'
âNot much, really. You know how it is, there's so much time involved in every piece, I just don't have enough hours in the day to do much â though, well, lately I've been freer.' She bit her lip and looked down at the table. âCan we get some more coffee here please, girls?' she called out to her staff, breaking the moment. âAnother espresso for you, Jimmy?'
âOh yeah,' he tapped his head. âI need regular infusions to keep me sharp. But you are still selling your work?' He turned back to the topic at hand.
âI sell them here and there,' she said, nodding, âbut usually I just give them away to friends and family.' Colour crept into her cheeks again as she added, âThat way I get to visit my favourite pieces whenever I want.'
âAww, you always were the sentimental type,' he grinned, stroking the back of her hand. âSo is Chanel still your favourite designer?' he asked.
âOh, yes,' she said with an emphatic nod. âI'll always be a Chanel girl.'
One of Jess's waitresses slid fresh cups of coffee in front of them and cleared away their used cups, giving Jess a minute to think. Nick didn't take his eyes off her face as she tried to make sense of his offer.
âSo you're seriously offering me a job at Still Life, one of the biggest design firms in Melbourne; just like that?' Jess asked, stirring her latte slowly.
âNot just like that, Jess. I've been keeping up with your work. I loved those collages you did with those whimsical collections of found objects: the vintage buttons cascading from an antique tin button box and the lace doilies, ribbons and collars, folded into intricate shapes â they were stunning.'
Jess leaned forward in excitement. âYou saw those? How?' She was incredulous.
âA friend bought the button piece and showed me your exhibition flier, which had a photo of the doilies piece â it was inspired stuff.' He threw back his espresso in one quick swallow and returned the cup to its saucer. âI showed it to Mimsy and we both agreed you are just what we need at Still Life.'
Jess's thoughts whirled at the idea of working with the stylish, creative entrepreneur Mimsy Baxter. She knew the woman's work and reputation from regular articles in her favourite design magazines, and she had studied her early work at design school. A recent profile about her in
magazine had celebrated Mimsy's vision in creating the hugely successful Still Life chain, which created semi-permanent art pieces, usually from reclaimed materials, as an alternative to floristry.
With Still Life boutiques in Albert Park, South Yarra, South Melbourne and in the foyer of Space in Church Street, Richmond, there was no denying that right now Mimsy was the most powerful person in the Victorian design and decor industry, and just the thought of working with such a legend made Jessica feel dizzy.
âBut I would have to leave my business here, my friends, the property,' Jess said, abruptly coming back to earth.
âHey, it's up to you, but these sorts of opportunities don't just drop in your lap every day. There was a time I remember when you were serious about art and wanted to prove something to the world.' Jimmy leaned back in the chair, placing his right ankle on his left knee and clasping his hands behind his head. The 1920s-style wingtips he was wearing took the look of his double-breasted suit from conservative executive to sophisticated whimsy. He continued to stare at her as if she were a fascinating type of sea creature.
Jess blushed: he
noticed her all that time ago after all. He was right, though, she had wanted all that â once â but she'd been just a silly teen back then. Instead she'd gone straight from design school to work in a well-known Peninsula interiors-cum-homewares shop because she'd wanted to be close to her family. She relished the coastal life and had found it difficult living, for the four years of her study, in the concrete jungle of the big city.
Six years of advising wealthy weekenders which navy-and-white regency stripe would work with their lime-washed floorboards finally wore her down. âIf I have to do one more bowl of river pebbles or hang another freaking oar above a stone fireplace I'll go nuts!' Jessica had complained to her dad.
The two had become business partners in the General Store, which had been the centre of Jessica's life for fourteen years as she worked to build it up into the stylish eatery and summer tourist destination that it had become.
But then her life had taken another massive turn five years ago. Joy had floated into it in the form of Graham and his two beautiful boys â they were an instant family and instant happiness for Jess and nothing could have enticed her to leave her patch of paradise and move to the big smoke to pursue her once-promising career.
But that was all gone now. So why not take Jimmy up on his offer? The store was so successful now that a competent general manager could run it.
âLet me know what you decide,' Jimmy said as he stood up to leave. âEver since your store appeared in
Mimsy's been desperate to get you, and she always gets what she wants so you may as well say yes now and save us all a lot of hassle.' He gave her a sexy wink that made Jess want to squirm in her seat.
He picked up his mobile phone and satchel. She looked up at him. He smiled gently. âDon't look so nervous,' he said. âYou're fantastic. Look at this place.' They both turned to look around the store. Jessica saw it through Jimmy's eyes. She took in the vintage Chanel fashion ads she'd had enlarged and framed as posters. The Eames-style lounge furniture around the open fire. Her array of
Black & White
magazines and back issues of
enticed customers to stay a while longer. Even the reclaimed timber chairs, every one different, created a unified look by virtue of their randomness.
The sun-filled art gallery attached to the cafe by a glass tunnel was her biggest triumph. Local artists took turns exhibiting in the compact space. It
beautiful. He was right.
Jimmy leaned down and brushed his lips over her cheek in farewell, filling her nostrils with the scent of CK One. âYou're as beautiful as ever, Jess,' he whispered, running his fingertip down her face and sweeping a stray curl from her forehead. Her heart thumped in her chest and desire swirled through her. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her breathing.
âLet me know your decision, soon.' Then he was gone and she sat trying to collect herself; her face still hot from his touch and her nerve endings tingling. She turned to watch as he walked through the cafe area and wound easily through the crowded grocery store section and out the door. He was lean and languid like a cat. As he opened his car door, he glanced up and saw her watching. His eyes held hers for a few seconds, then his lips turned slowly upwards and he gave her a small wave before climbing into his gleaming Jaguar XJS.
Perhaps there was more than one reason to take Mimsy Baxter up on her offer, Jess mused. She poured herself a glass of water and found a quiet seat at one of the old timber dining tables. She fiddled with the sugar packets as she turned the idea over in her mind. Leave her home, her General Store and try her hand at a design career in the city? It seemed too massive to even comprehend. She loved living the quiet country life. But then she thought of her empty house: the empty bedrooms, the quiet nights alone and the even quieter mornings ... She needed a change, a challenge, something to shake things up, shake the past away.
She could do this, surely; she, Jessica Wainwright, could prove she was a skilled artist who could cut it in the commercial world with the best of them.