Charming Mr Stewart

 

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1. Too Many Boxes

The medieval-looking wine goblet, with its talons holding the glass vessel, gleamed as Elle slid it into a far corner of the cupboard with a shiver. “Trust Uncle Steve to give such a gift,” she mumbled. She wanted to throw them out, or give them away, but she knew her uncle. It was just a matter of time before he’d ask for wine in those very things. She unwrapped the last of them and slides it next to the other three. They would sit in that dark corner till Elle deleted them from memory.

Hopping off the step ladder, she eyed the disaster zone. Piles of cardboard boxes and countless crinkled newspaper littered the kitchen floor like an aftermath of a badly orchestrated explosion. There were still two more boxes labelled ‘Kitchenware’ to unpack.

It could take her days at the rate she was going. The house was teeming with boxes of various shapes and sizes, itching to be unpacked. For the first time since the move, she wished she’d taken up her mother’s offer to come and help for a few days.  It was almost eleven at night and she’d been working in the kitchen for four hours straight. By God, she was kaput.

“Should you or shouldn’t you, Elle?” She eyed the two untouched boxes and sighed, pulling one to her. “Only two to go.”

An hour later, she didn’t give a hoot about the misaligned glasses unlike most days. She stepped off the ladder, crunched her way through the piles of newspaper, and headed down the corridor to her bedroom, buggered as hell. 

Elle relished the silence as she stood before the closed door for a moment. Neighbour’s dogs were having a barking fest, nor were there highway traffic whizzing past. No blaring of sirens, keeping her awake most nights thinking if Blake was in amongst them. Nor would there be any more phones ringing in the middle of the night making her minds rush to all sorts of mishaps.  Not anymore.  

The shrill ring of her cell phone startled her then and sent her scrambling into the room, stumbling over a suitcase in the dark.  She dove next to the bed and found her handbag, fishing out her phone with annoyance. “What is wrong with you?” she eyed the figure on the bed that slept undisturbed.

“I was worried. You hadn’t called yet.” Trish asked.

“It’s almost midnight Mother…”

“So you see why I was beginning to panic?!” her mother interrupted. “I wanted to see if you both have settled in okay?”

Elle tiptoed out of the room, pulling the door close behind. “I was a busy unpacking, Mum.”

“Of course, you wouldn’t have all that unpacking to do if you were still here!” Trish fired sarcastically. “Is Maya in bed yet?”

“Sleeping already, Mum, or I hope she still is.”

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place? It’s getting late. I would have called tomorrow.”

Elle leaned against the wall.  “That would be better, Mum.”

“Well, get some sleep then. You’re probably tired. You know, your dad and I still think you shouldn’t have moved away….”

Elle slid all the way to the floor and massaged her temples.  She’d heard this before. Many times in fact.  “Mum, we’ve been over this.”

“Moving her across the world from her family and all...” her mother continued.

“An hour away is not across the world, Mum!” Elle clenched her jaws, holding back her anger.  “Now, will you hang up, or do I have to sit here in my dusty clothes listening to you rant for another hour about the same things? I’m tired.”

“Fine, you always do whatever you want anyway. Goodnight.”

The dial tone beeped in Elle’s ear. She knew her mother; this argument was far from over. She wanted to hurl the phone across the hallway and watch it shatter.  No phone, no one to bug you with constant calls of paranoia and concern. Right? She pushed off the dusty floor.

“I’m only a widow, for God’s sake, not dying of an incurable disease and leaving my child to fend for herself.” She walked back into the bedroom, relieved to hear the soft rumble of Maya’s breathing. She peeled off her dusty, sweaty clothes, grabbed a towel and an oversized shirt from her overnight bag and walked to the bathroom.

She stood for ages in front of the mirror. Her hair dripping, her eyes sunk, her lips a pale pink. The only thing she liked was the shirt. The shirt that was several sized too big for her. She wrapped her arms around herself, wishing it were a pair of strong arms wrapped around her instead, smelling of pine and musk. She’d always liked how Blake had smelt. She sniffed the sleeve, breathing in the scent of him. I miss you.

“Mummy?”

“Yeah hunny?” She called from the bathroom, flicking off the bathroom light and plunging the room into darkness She felt her way to the bed and slithered in.

“Mummy” Maya stirred under the cover.

“I’m here, honey. I’m here.”

“I miss Daddy.”

Elle blinked back the sudden tears that flooded her eyes and kissed Maya’s soft curls. “I miss him too, baby,” she whispered. “Now, get some sleep, baby. It’s late.”

 

 

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2. A Baked Casserole

A doorbell tolled around Elle as she stood in the midst of an emerald rainforest.  She ignored the intrusion and continued walking down a dirt path, entranced. The clang of cymbals sounded again, louder. The forest around her shook.

“Mummy,” Maya’s voice slipped through the dense canopy overhead. “Somebody at the door!” The forest shook harder. Or was it her? Gasping, Elle woke to Maya shaking her. “Somebody at the door,” Maya said again.

The doorbell tolled again. Elle scrambled out of bed. “Coming!” she yelled, fluttering around the room in search of something, anything, to put on underneath the white oversized shirt. “Maya, go see who it is. Mummy needs to find a pair of pants.” Maya bounced off the bed, bounding down the corridor and Elle dropped on all four over a suitcase. “Pants, pants…”

“Oh, hi there,” a woman’s greet floated down the corridor. “Your mummy or daddy home?”

“Mummy needs to find her pants,” Maya replied, and Elle’s cheeks flushed.

“Oh! Go tell her your neighbour is here, okay?”

Elle pulled on a pair of well-worn track pants and walked to the front door.  “Sorry about that, I was just…” Elle cleared her throat, hoping she looked tidy enough.

The woman in her late thirties eyed Elle’s clothes and smiled.  “I noticed you moved in yesterday. I just wanted to come by and welcome you to the neighbourhood.” She handed over a small wicker basket of oranges. “It’s just something from our garden.”

“Thank you.” Elle took the basket and smiled.  “Maya loves oranges.”

Anna offered a hand. “I’m Anna Pauls.”

Elle shook her hand. “Ellenor Grace and this is, Maya.”  Maya turned shy and peeked at Anna from behind Elle’s legs. .

“She’s a charmer!”

“Yes,” Elle laughed, opening the door wider. “Would you like to come in for a cup of tea and breakfast?”

 “Not sure about breakfast at midday, but tea sounds good,” Anna chuckled, walking in.

Embarrassed, Elle closed the door. “Please excuse the mess. I was up late unpacking and still have a lot to get through.”

Anna followed Elle into the kitchen, where the sight of cardboard boxes and scrunched newspaper greeted her. “Oh my, you do have your work cut out.”

Elle laughed. “Yes, I guess.”

Anna rolled up her sleeves. “You get tea on, and I’ll start with these,” she began gathering newspaper off the floor.

“Please, you don’t have to,” Elle hesitated.

“Ellenor, when one needs help, one should ask,” Anna smiled. “And when one gets help without asking, then one should just go about making tea.”

Elle smiled back, nodded and went about getting a pot of tea ready. “That’s sweet of you.”

“I’ve got nothing better to do.” Anna rose to tie up her long, auburn hair. “Now, come on, Maya, honey. Help Aunty Anna while mummy makes lunch.”

“But we haven’t had breakfast,” Maya stood confused.

Elle laughed. “Go and brush your teeth.”

“Who does she take after? You or your husband?” Anna asked as Maya ran off down the corridor.

Elle was glad Anna couldn’t see her face as she strained tea into cups. The knot in her throat made it hard for her to speak. “Her father, same hair, same eyes,” she managed, handing over a cup of tea.

 

The kitchen was spotless within couple of hours. Anna dusted her palms, “Well, that’s the most important room in the house done.”

Elle wiped perspiration from her brow, throwing the last of the newspaper into an already full garbage bag. “I’d still be at it if you hadn’t come along.”

“I better go get dinner going though.”

Elle nodded and walked her to the door. “Thank you so much for the help and the oranges.”

Anna peered over Elle’s shoulder. “She’s quiet as a mouse.” Elle nodded. Anna walked out the door. “Get some rest, have some tea, and a casserole at my place for dinner. Come around six.”

“I couldn’t impose.”

“It’s not an imposition. I expected you and Maya at six. See you then.”

Elle watched Anna cross the lawn then closed the door. She walked over to the sofa and dropped, exhausted. A casserole, some wine and nice neighbours to unwind with sounded enticing. With that thought, she dozed off.

 

When she woke up, the clock was ticking towards six. “Maya?” Elle called out jumping off the sofa and scurrying down the hallway. “Honey, where are you?” Elle checked the whole house but Maya was nowhere to be seen. “Maya?” she ran down the corridor, throwing the front door open.

Elle slipped across the lawn. “Maya?” she whispered, almost too scared to yell her daughter’s name. What had she done? How could she fall asleep without thinking about Maya? She lost her only child.

Soft giggles of children reached Elle from Anna’s front yard. She peered around the hedge to find three children playing in corner of the lawn under an orange tree. “Maya?”

Maya turned with a smile. “Look, Mummy, I’m made friends.”

“You had me worried!”

“I’m only playing, Mummy.”

Elle reached out to her daughter. “You have to tell me when you leave the house. If I don’t know where you are, I worry.”

“But you was sleeping”

Elle couldn’t help but wonder, what if Maya hadn’t been in the neighbour’s yard? She shuddered at the thought. “Next time I do that, wake me up, okay?”

“It was my doing, Ellenor,” the front porch light came on and Anna appeared. “Go in and wash up, boys.”

“You can sit next to us at dinner, Maya” said Nathan Pauls, the older of the twin boys. The only way to tell one twin from the other was that Nathan was taller than his brother.

“I came back over to yours to ask if you eat meat, and I found your door unlocked…”Anna apologised.

Elle bit her lip. She was turning out to be a reckless mother and it was only day two. She’d never had to worry about Maya’s whereabouts with her parents never far away from their grandchild.

“You were asleep and Maya told me you eat chicken…” Anna smiled, “I’m guessing she was telling me she likes chicken. I didn’t have the heart to wake you so I brought her along with me so you didn’t have to worry. I was just coming over to tell you dinner’s almost ready.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to doze off,” Elle sighed. “I’ve never had to look after Maya by myself.”

 “If you ever need help, I’m home most days,” Anna offered. “And she’ll have to boys to play with.”

“We better run off and make ourselves presentable.”

“I’ll have some wine ready. You could do with some.”

Elle laughed and tugged Maya along.

 

Elle’s heart hammered as she waited with Maya impatient for the front door to open. This was the first engagement of any kind Elle had decided to attend since Blake’s funeral. As the light flickered on in the hallway and footsteps approach, she wondered if she was ready to mingle with the living.

Too late. The door opened and a smile appeared on a kind face. “You must be the Graces,” Harold Pauls greeted them in a cheery voice. “Come in, come in!”

Elle handed over a bottle of red she’d been saving a dinner party she never got around to hosting. “Thank you for having us.”

“The more the merrier,” Harold laughed, closing the door. “I’m afraid Anna’s already started on the wine.” He led them through the warm, colourful lounge and into the dining room.  “Our guests are here!”

The boys came hurtling down the stairs to greet them. “Maya!” Neil Pauls, sliding to a halt near Harold’s feet.

Maya waved at the boys and smiled up at Elle. “Go ahead,” Elle nudged.

“Anna’s this way.” Harold lead Elle into the kitchen.

“Hope you’re hungry,” Anna held out an almost overflowing glass of red to her.

“Starved, actually!” Elle took a generous sip.

As Harold excused himself from the kitchen, an awkward silence rolled over Elle.  It felt odd to be there alone, without Blake. It didn’t feel right.

 “So, what made you move to this little neighbourhood?” Anna asked.

Elle watched the kids sit down in an orderly fashion at the dining table. She smiled at Maya. “We needed change.” I needed change. Elle drained her glass.

Harold topped up her glass to the brim once more.  “Serve us up, Ann.”

 

Maya was asleep in her arms as Elle walked to her new home. She felt the calmest she had in a long, long while. Moving had been stressful but after the hearty dinner with the Pauls’, she felt somewhat relieved. Maybe she could be a new Elle here. After all she had managed to actually enjoy the evening. A few laughs. A few memories dug up.

For the first time in almost a year, she walked through a dark house with a smile on her face feeling a little less chaotic inside.

 

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3. A Splash of White

Elle stood in front of a local café, browsing the community notice board. She hadn’t really thought about what she would do for work in the small town, but it wouldn’t hurt to find a part-time job till she made up her mind.

“Ice cream, mummy,” Maya tugged at Elle’s arm as a group of teenagers emerged from the café with ice creams in their hands.

Elle fished a note out from her bag. “Here, go get what you want, darling.”

“With that, mummy?”

Elle had fished a worn out piece of paper instead. “I’m sorry.” She grabbed Maya’s hand and walked into the café. “Let’s get us both a treat.”

It had been two weeks since they had moved from Elle’s parents place in Tamworth. It had been a month since she had decided she could no longer live in the town where she had fallen in love with Blake. Before that, months had passed with Elle barely leaving the house because walking down the familiar streets where she’d once gone on bike rides with the young man she was falling in love with. The man she was going to marry few years down the track.

“What can I get you?” Connie, one half of the café owning couple smiled from ear to ear. Elle had just about made friends with their neighbours and chatted with Connie couple of times.

“A job would be nice,” Elle smiled warmly.

 

Elle sat with Maya in the darkest booth she could find for them and sat there sipping her coffee as Maya dug into her banana split. It wasn’t long before Connie walked over and handed her a bundled up newspaper. “There’s a classified section in there.”

“You wouldn’t need any extra staff?”

Connie laughed. “A city gal bussing a country café?” Elle cracked a smile. “Well, we are coming up to wedding season. I’m going to need extra hands with the catering. What skills you got?”

“I waitressed when I was seventeen.”

“Mummy makes good photos,” Maya scoped ice cream into her mouth.

“Now there’s an idea.”

“I was an event photographer a while ago,” Elle answered, pushing back Maya’s hair from her face. “It’s not nice to interrupt, honey.”

“Never mind the child, Ellenor,” Connie shook her head. “Well, darn it. Why don’t you do it here? Gregory has a shop that’s empty if you need it to set up and what not. He wouldn’t have a problem renting to you.” Connie leaned in closer and lowered her voice. “Mind you, we could do with our own local professional photo woman.”

Elle hesitated. “I haven’t done it since…”

“You can’t waitress all your life but yes, you can come help out. We have a wedding coming up next week. Pay won’t be what you’re used to.”

“It’d be nice to just get back to working again.”

 

Walking home, Elle couldn’t help wonder what if. She’d closed up shop in Sydney and moved back into her parents place 5 hours away after Blake’s death. Why couldn’t she get back to doing what she had once loved?

“Daddy says you are bestest photoapper.”

Elle remained quiet. She didn’t know if it was for Blake or because of him that she’d stopped doing everything she loved. What was the point anyway?

“Why can’t I see Daddy?” Maya teared up.

“Because,” Elle bit her lip as she opened the door. “Daddy went very far away honey, where lots of people need his help.”

Maya stomped her feet and balled her fists. “He’s my daddy!” and rushed down the hallway towards her room. The door slammed behind her.

“Maya, are you okay?” Elle slipped into the room and found Maya cuddling the tan teddy bear Blake had given her before his death.

“I want Daddy.”

Elle scooped Maya into her arms. “So do I, but Daddy never liked seeing you sad, did he?” Maya shook her head. “Then wipe those tears.”

 

Elle sat alone in the dark. The television twittered away, as she leafed through various photo albums that had ended up on the coffee table on the day of the move. Blake had encouraged her to take her photography hobby and turn it into a business. Over few years, her photography business had picked up a great deal. What a waste it seemed now, all that time spent on others and their weddings when she should have been making the most of her time with Blake. Now, she had all time in the world and no Blake.

She reached for another album, her fingers trembling over the splash of satin white cover. Their wedding album. She flipped to the first photo and marvelled with a heavy heart at the happy couple staring at the camera, their smiles had looked infectious that day.

Every photo danced with memories. She could recall the laughter of merry voices, the clink of wine-filled glasses. To think it was eight years ago.  Tears dribbled silent down the slope of her cheeks as she flipped to another photo, then another, searching for her husband in every one of them. It took a while before she registered her phone vibrating at her feet. With reluctance she answered it. “Hello.”

“Elle!” came a crescendo of an excited scream. Elle pulled her phone away from her ears.

“Hey, Chloe.”

“Hey, yourself. What took you so long? I’ve been calling you for 10 minutes now. My GPS is stuffed. Lost signal and now I’m stuck in a strange town not knowing where to turn next. I need you to give me directions. Stat!”

“What are you doing in a strange town then?”

“Well I was going to surprise you and my little princess. But sod it. I need your address again. Or do you want me to turn back around and go home after all this?” Chloe said.

 

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4. Breathe deep and jump.

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