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Authors: Cate Kendall

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Chanel Sweethearts (7 page)

BOOK: Chanel Sweethearts
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12

Jessica placed the last latte glass, polished and gleaming, atop the espresso machine ready for the next morning's attack, and sighed.

She usually loved the solitude of closing time, when only faint echoes of the busy day remained in the store and the amber glow of twilight warmed the walls. But today she continued to fight the feeling of dissatisfaction and despondency that had been haunting her lately. Outside the sun was sinking below the horizon and the sea was calm and still.

As Jess flicked a mop across the floorboards she remembered how decrepit the store had been when she had first taken it over. She and her dad had gone along to the auction ten years before out of curiosity more than anything, but as she'd wandered around the tired, sagging weatherboard shack that housed the local post office and sold basic bread and milk supplies, Jess had suddenly been seized with a sense of possibility.

‘Dad, I could do this you know,' she'd said, squeezing his arm with excitement.

‘Hmmm ... do what?' Richard had asked, distracted by a discussion he was having with the estate agent about the local market.

‘I could turn this into somewhere really special; a place where people could meet, eat good food and relax. It has so much scope, so much character; this is something I could really get my teeth into. Oh Dad, do you think, maybe, well ... what do you think?' she had gushed, her shining eyes and flushed cheeks telling her father how badly she had fallen in love with her vision of a new General Store. And because it was the first time since she had finished design school that he had seen her so passionate about anything, Richard had raised his arm again and again as the auction price increased until suddenly Jess was hugging him delightedly and shrieking with joy and the General Store was theirs. They became a father and daughter team: fifty-fifty business partners.

She'd opened for business four months later. Rainbow and Songbird, and of course Nick, had worked long hours with her to clean and wash the dusty interior of the store, and she'd started out with simple offerings of coffee and cake, but soon her dreams of lime-washed boards, windows overlooking the slice of bay that peeped from behind the banksias, walls of shelving to hold locally made jams and preserves, vintage knick-knacks and work from local artisans filled the space. The long love-worn wooden counter from a country haberdashery became her front counter. She hired a chef and a manager and rummaged in op shops across the Peninsula, hunting out mismatched English china, souvenir teaspoons and retro jugs and glasses to give the store its eclectic feel.

Nick had worked for weeks with her that first summer, building the deck that became a favourite of locals and townies, who coveted the 1960s patio furniture with the best view of the bay.

Inside the store was bright, airy and open, the salt of the sea mixing with the local fare and attracting plenty of customers. Jess's design flair was stamped throughout the interior from tiny touches, such as pottery bowls of sea-smoothed glass collected on the beach that lay just metres from the store's front door, to the larger features, like the enormous pier bollards that marked out the parking area around the side. And her years of helping her mum in the Lavender Lunches restaurant paid off tenfold in the General Store's early days as she multi-tasked the pokey little corner store's way to a viable business. Her cook, Andrea, was a god-send but it was Jessica's stylish decor, merchandising and warmth with the customers that kept the punters flowing in the front door.

It was here, in her cafe and produce store, that Jess felt more fully at home than almost anywhere in the world; this was hers, her vision and hopes all realised within four walls. All the dreams and passion she had ever had for interior design that she could never seem to find the right outlet for after school seemed to come together in this simple beach shack – which these days proudly boasted a gleaming commercial kitchen that could cater a stylish wedding. Two years after the cafe was humming along and the produce store section began to support itself, Jessica had opened the art gallery. The short glass corridor led from the cafe section into a large white room where Jessica proudly showcased local talent, with a small corner dedicated to her own pieces.

Bold beach scenes in whites and neutrals in oil on enormous canvas, by local painter Helen Greenwill, were a big favourite– the tourists couldn't get enough of the things to feature over the stone fireplaces in their beach houses. Patrick Lardner, whose work was so well known and so highly priced that he was really a national treasure, even exhibited his bold, naive works on the odd occasion; more as a favour to Jessica than anything.

The other artists who exhibited in the General Store Gallery ranged from hobbyists to professionals – it didn't matter to Jess if they were well known or not.

But, even with her gallery, even with the store, now it was time to leave. She'd done enough here. She'd proved herself and now a bigger challenge lay before her. She recognised there was a void within her that was unable to be filled by the beautiful cafe. It had been filled by the boys and was now yawning; empty and painful deep inside.

Before Graham, she'd considered moving on to a new challenge. But then he'd walked into her life and had given her an instant family. In retrospect, up until then she felt she'd lived her entire life in black and white, and suddenly – with two warm bodies squeezed up against her on the couch as she read them stories – it was infused with colour.

Graham was sweet and fun – at first – but even the growing distance between them hadn't bothered her that much; hearing the boys call her ‘Mumma' was bliss. For four years she was the centre of a family and along with the commercial and creative satisfaction of running her store and creating artworks for the gallery, she felt complete.

She was happy to take over the reins as full-time mum while Graham worked long days as the marketing manager for the National Vignerons' Association. He was often on the road, and he stayed in the city overnight at least once a week.

She rarely missed him; after all she had her gorgeous boys to keep her busy and fulfilled, and increasingly when Graham did come home he'd find fault with her, her dinners or her housekeeping, and she began to enjoy his absences.

Jessica relished the dawn wrestles with her boys, their voracious appetite not only for food, but also for entertainment and attention. She was thrown into the parenting deep end and she revelled in every second. In those precious moments with the boys, as she stroked their foreheads while they slept, kissed their plump cheeks or sang silly songs with them, it made her feel connected to her own mother, as though an invisible thread had wound down through time and joined them as mothers. For the first time since losing Eva, Jess felt a void had been filled.

Of course she knew that Graham was becoming distant; that their bond was straining, weakening. And she worried. She didn't want relationship issues to rock this special family boat she was cruising in. When he was around she tried to engage him in his family, talk to him about his life, act every bit the interested, thoughtful partner.

But they left anyway.

Graham met someone new and took the boys – her boys – to Melbourne to live with the new woman (his assistant, stereotypically).

It happened so fast. One day she was worrying about Liam's lost library books and planning Callum's sixth birthday party– and the next they were gone. It was as if the whole thing had never happened. Sometimes she woke at night and had to convince herself that it hadn't all been just a dream. She would stumble half-asleep in the dark house to the boys' bedroom to touch their toys, their few remaining clothes, just to prove to herself that it was real, that she hadn't conjured the whole thing in her mind.

It was months since she'd last seen them; Graham wanted to erase her from their lives; pretend she'd never existed. ‘Let the boys have a clean start,' he'd barked down the phone at her a few weeks ago when she'd begged one more time to just visit; just to hold them for a few minutes, to feel their heartbeats against her and know that they were okay.

‘You're stuffing up their lives,' Graham had told her. ‘They have a new stepmother now, you'll only confuse them.'

His cruel words still stung and she wondered if maybe he was right; maybe she should just give up, let them adjust to their new life. She had the chance for a new life now too, and she was going to grab it with both hands and be a success. Jess stopped mopping the floor, wiped the tears from her eyes and pulled her mobile from her pocket. She flicked through her contacts and tapped on Jimmy's name.

13

The shrill squawk of the wattlebird rejoicing in the grevillea's bright blooms didn't break into Tori's retail-induced trance as she pulled into the driveway of her country house. She was too excited by the bounty in her boot.

She'd popped back to Malvern this morning to drop the children with her parents for a few days, and then planned to call into the house to pick up Dustin's flippers and snorkel before heading off to Chadstone for some Christmas shopping.

She was surprised to find Joseph at home, sorting paperwork at the kitchen table. To her dismay he had immediately brought up the subject of money.

‘What do you plan to buy the children for Christmas?' he'd asked.

‘Um, well I thought an iTouch each would be useful and practical,' she'd stammered.

‘There just isn't money for that sort of extravagance,' Joseph had said, his face turning a deep red. ‘You have to stop spending.' He flipped the papers in front of him angrily.

‘But it's Christmas,' she'd cried. ‘What sort of Christmas will Priscilla and Dustin have if there isn't something fabulous for them under the tree?'

‘They can have some presents, of course,' Joseph said and shoved papers into a briefcase already overflowing with documents and files.

‘I suppose they could make do with sharing a Nintendo Wii,' Tori had conceded with a sniff.

To her shock, Joseph had exploded with anger. ‘No, no, no!' he'd yelled. ‘No Nintendo, no iTouch, no bloody money. What is wrong with you, woman?' He'd grabbed his bulging briefcase and stormed out of the house, leaving Tori in tears.

It was hardly the way to start a shopping trip, but she'd decided the best thing to do was to pull herself together for the sake of the children; it was her duty to give them the best
budget
Christmas she could. She'd set off with her platinum Amex and the thrill of retail therapy taking the sting out of the early morning altercation.

Now she squealed with excitement as she saw the mountains of crisp multicoloured shopping bags crushed into her boot. She loved Christmas. It was the most exciting time of the year. There were so many retail opportunities. She prided herself on her beautiful Christmas tree display: each year her tree sported a new look. This season was to be turquoise and silver, to tone in with the seaside theme.

She was proud of herself for shaking off the morning's ugliness created by Joseph's mercenary attitude. All it had taken was some lateral thinking. If she couldn't afford quality items, she'd decided, she'd do quantity instead.

So what if they couldn't get a Nintendo Wii? She'd upgraded their X-Box experience instead and bought them each four new games. It was practically recycling, she thought proudly. She should get herself one of those hemp T-shirts, she was becoming so green, she thought with a chuckle.

Fuelling her children's reading habit was an educational rather than frivolous expense, so she'd felt quite justified in acquiring the entire range of twenty
Fairy Magic
novels for Priscilla and forking out two hundred dollars for some DK learning books for Dustin. After all, what price knowledge?, she thought, lugging the small library of books from the boot.

Then there was clothing; she'd spent a deliriously happy hour in Esprit and David Jones buying frocks and accessories for Priscilla and a little suit for Dustin to wear to Christmas lunch, along with more than enough casual wear to see them through the season. But clothes were essentials – so they didn't count.

Then she'd had a ball in Toys R Us buying cheap little stocking fillers, Nintendo DS games, Barbie dolls and Brio.

She breathed a happy, sated sigh. Her little darlings would have a wonderful morning opening the loot from Santa and she would feel like a perfect mother.

As she pulled more bags from the boot a slight twinge of unease hit her. She may have bought more than she'd realised. What was the Australian Geographic bag? She couldn't remember that store; she'd been in such a frenzy. Oh, yes, that's right, a telescope and a child's geology set. Oh, and night-vision goggles. Well anything from Australian Geographic was educational, no one could argue with that.

Hmm ... a Darrell Lea bag? She peeped inside. Oh yes, more stocking stuffers, fifty-dollar showbags. Well that was all right, food definitely didn't count, that came out of the grocery budget. All was well.

Now she needed an iced tea and maybe one of Jess's fabulous frittatas, and a spot of PSA – Post Shopping Analysis. Sometimes just talking about her purchases was as much fun as the actual buying, Tori thought, as she jumped into the car and headed to the General Store.

‘So, how goes Operation Country Christmas?' Jess asked once they were installed at a table with cool drinks in front of them.

‘Absolutely brilliantly!' Tori said in excitement. She filled Jess in with a condensed version of that morning's shopping trip.

Jess was surprised at how her friend seemed to have shaken off the sadness of her troubled marriage that had had her in tears just a few nights before. Shopping seemed to transform Tori into a different person; a slightly manic one.

‘And I'm saving, saving, saving,' bragged Tori. ‘I'm so proud of my little budget conscious moves. I'm not buying those one-hundred-dollar Christmas crackers this year from De La Fleur,' she announced with aplomb.

‘One hundred dollars? What, per cracker? What in the hell's in them?'

‘Oh, I don't remember, but it's good. I think the jokes are written by Jerry Seinfeld or something. I'm getting the ten-dollar crackers instead.'

‘Tori, that's two hundred dollars on a moment's fun and a lifetime of landfill. Why don't you make them yourself? It's just a loo roll and silver paper, a homemade key chain and a funny story about a family member. You can get the kids to make the festive hats. It's so much more meaningful. And so easy to do.'

‘Oh, Jess, you know I can barely thread a needle. You're the crafty one. I don't know how you even think up that kind of stuff. Honestly, you're amazing.' Tori sipped her tea and stared at the thin line of sea in the distance. ‘No, I'm proud of my decision, it's a huge saving. Of course, we can't be silly though with this budgeting thing: it's still Christmas. There are essentials to buy, like a reindeer, for example. Blitzen broke last year when those kookaburras mistook his tail for a snake. Obviously I can't have the lawn display without Blitzen. And yes, a reindeer costs a grand, but like I was saying, it's an essential. And tomorrow's the Christmas craft market: there's tons of fun festive stuff there I need.' She practically started shivering in anticipation.

‘Tori,' Jess leaned forward and put her hand on the other woman's knee to get her full attention, ‘sweetheart, I'm a bit worried about you with this spending thing.'

‘You're starting to sound like Joseph, Jess. Anyway, given the financial crisis situation it's perfect timing to put on a brave face and throw a big, fun, down-home, country shebang. I've got the catering sorted, the decor all planned, I need to order flowers and the eye fillet, and of course the crayfish and oysters, but it'll be fun doing a humble, DIY kind of function.'

‘Ummm, you know DIY means Do It Yourself, don't you, love?'

‘Well, of course,' Tori emptied her glass with a flourish. ‘I'm supervising, darling. Very tricky business being a delegator. Well, must fly, I've got a little man coming to quote on polishing the monstera leaves.'

BOOK: Chanel Sweethearts
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