Clara Winters isn’t coping well with her life but presents as if she is; just like one of the exquisite hats she makes in her Fitzroy studio. She discovers her mother left a clue in a valuable painting at the Winters’ homestead on the outskirts of Ballarat. The clue leads to secrets in her mother’s past. Secrets that have held her family together. Shattered by the revelations, her life falls into disarray. Unable to pretend that she’s fine any longer, Clara realises the only way to rebuild her life is to confront her mother’s past and her own inner demons.
At a Winters’ family gathering at Kilmarnock homestead on the outskirts of Ballarat, Clara Winters sat alone on an old church pew in the Victorian hallway, hands tucked under her thighs. A deluge drummed on the tile roof. The hallway dimmed as the sky darkened throwing into disarray the thirty or so landscapes and portraits on the fourteen-foot walls.
Clara studied the shadowed hallway until, unable to abide the gloominess, she found the light switch on the wall. Partly revived she resumed her quiet ordeal upon the bench. Her freed hand scratched at her arm; realising, she wedged it back under her thigh. She was dazzled by the convergence of the paintings brought back to life. She closed her eyes and reopened them onto the Grace Sutherland coastal scene opposite her. She didn’t believe in magic but the house on the bluff above the faded blue waters of Coogee beach appeared to levitate towards her.
Broad laughter became louder until it echoed in the hall. William’s thick forearm, developed from years of sailing, and then his lean profile shifted into the silhouette of the family room doorway. He rocked back and forth on his heels in his blue canvas shoes. She’d agonised over buying them but he’d slipped them on at home without a word and kissed her cheek. He probably hated them. He clicked his tongue and waved a cocked thumb and index finger, probably at her cousin back in the family room. She couldn’t decide if he was really cool or really a geek.
William slid to a stop beside her and sat. ‘Coming to play pool?’
Clara’s forehead knitted. ‘In a bit, and it’s snooker.’
‘I know.’ He pushed his arm around her waist, pulling her into his body. ‘I just like to hear you correct me.’
He rubbed his clean-shaven cheek up against her own. Her body seemed to liquify and reform around his shape.
‘I want to enjoy the art.’ Her sandal tapped against the toe of his new canvas shoe. Blue indigo or vintage blue as she liked to call it. He definitely hated them. Her last birthday, he’d given her a silver pendant with descending and ascending columns, wrapped in black paper with a green ribbon. Scales, he’d said. But it reminded her of his beloved four-foot, eight-and-a-half-inch train track gauge: sleek, shiny and geometric.
He ran his finger down her ribs. She sat up and his fingers slipped under her silky top and crept around the slight roundness of her abdomen to lodge in her bellybutton. She grabbed for his hand and pulled it away.
‘Hey,’ he said.
She intertwined their fingers. He lifted them up to examine, twisting from side to side before settling them on top of his jeans.
‘You should pack up a few of the pieces and put them up on the walls of our new place. I wouldn’t mind that Newman,’ he said.
Clara glanced at Ned Kelly looking more like a purple robot. Her head seemed to shake of its own accord. ‘In our apartment?’
‘I’m sure Richard and Eleanor won’t mind.’
‘They mightn’t but I would. Our walls are hardly fit for art of this calibre.’
‘When are you going to stop blaming me? Your signature is on the contract too.’ He wrenched his hand back.
Clara jerked sideways towards him and then fell against the back of the pew. Her face screwed up in pain. ‘It wasn’t my choice. There, that’s the house I wanted to buy.’ She stabbed her finger at the Sutherland opposite.
William stood to get a closer look. ‘A beach house?’
‘No. Look at it, it’s a proper home, with a real fireplace not an ugly wall-mounted gas heater.’
‘We can change the heating, for god’s sake.’
Clara faced him, arms crossed. ‘It’s beige and boring, like the rest of it.’
‘You’re the creative, do something about it.’
She twisted the solitaire diamond on her ring finger. ‘It’s a lost cause.’
‘You’re impossible!’ He stalked away muttering to himself.
He slammed the family room door at the end of the hallway, shaking the paintings, their frames shuddering against the wall. She let out her breath and slumped down onto the bench, but had to lean forward to catch her racing heart. She pushed her fist in towards it grinding it backwards, as if trying to push Jack back into his box.
She studied The Meadow Tree, her mother’s work, which hung to the left of the Sutherland. Alone in a field of wildflowers, its thick trunk appeared lopsided and twisted as if shaped by the winds, but it’s gnarled branches provided a home to birds and insects. Things are not as they seem, she thought. Her life appeared to be the calm waters of a tropical cove but her insides were a tropical storm. As if to punctuate the fact, her heart thudded.
The family room door opened and her head turned towards it. A man double William’s age and width strode down towards her.
‘The wind’ll change,’ her Uncle Richard said. He scratched at his new beard.
‘You didn’t shave.’ She slid over even though the bench held ample room either side of her. The coldness filtered through her harem pants, up the back of her thighs and made her shiver.
‘I’m not scared of your aunt.’ Her uncle planted himself and stretched his legs crossing them at the ankle. He reached forward to rub his left knee.
Clara smiled. ’What’s up with the knee?’
‘It’s nothing, just the stormy weather wreaking havoc. I’m still an assassin with the cue, come be my double’s partner. Your William is draining my finest and making bets I’m not sure he will want to keep.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Betting? William? The one who always travels with a parachute?’
Her uncle gave a gravelly laugh that seemed to originate in his throat and made his head tip back. Coarse black hairs peppered with white covered the area underneath.
‘And yet, he proposed to you.’
‘Okay, Hairy Wan Kenobi.’
He chuckled some more. ‘What are you doing out here anyway?’
‘Look at this.’ She pointed towards the Sutherland.
He spent several moments staring at it. ‘Same as always, sea, sand, people—’
‘It’s the house. There’s something about it.’
Her uncle leaned forward, dragging his feet in and resting his palms on his knees before stretching out again. ‘Requires a renovation?’ His face deadpan.
‘I’m trying to be serious.’ She crossed her arms.
‘What is it with you and this painting?’
‘I don’t know. But who wouldn’t want a life like this. If only it could stay this way.’ She smoothed out the wrinkles in her pants and tugged them back down where they’d ridden up her lower leg.
‘It’s not bad. But think of what you’d miss if it was only ever sunny.’
‘You whinge about all the seasons.’
‘I’m a farmer, it’s part of the job description. Imagine missing the early-morning frosts, new foals wobbling to stand and the first green tinge through the sown fallow. Would you really trade one moment for all that? You have to get out there and experience it all, good and bad.’ His hands waved about.
‘Really? Well that’s interesting, why wouldn’t you let me go to Europe on exchange when I was sixteen?’
‘That’s different.’ His arms crossed and he slipped his palms into his armpits.
‘How exactly?’ Clara’s head tilted and her back straightened.
A moment passed and then another, Clara didn’t think he was going to answer.
‘You were a child and I was in charge of your wellbeing.’ He didn’t look at her.
‘I was sixteen! I could’ve moved out of home, left school and got my drivers licence if we’d lived in New South Wales.’
‘Actually, it’s seventeen.’ Her uncle rested his hands behind his head.
‘Whatever.’ She turned away back to the painting.
The grandfather clock struck nine. With each gong, the rain raised its volume as if fighting with time to be heard. Clara strained her hearing trying to count but could barely make out the last two.
Her uncle sat up, crossed his arms and peered at her. ‘What’s really going on?’
Clara knew that stance and groaned. She pointed upwards at the continued torrent. Her uncle shook his head. Her bottom lip slipped out but she quickly sucked it back in and expelled a short breath.
‘I want to live in a house like that.’ She gestured towards the Sutherland. ‘Not some ugly, boxy apartment. I could set up my millinery studio there.’
Squinting, she eased herself up. ‘There’s a couple of spots that don’t seem to fit. Come and look.’ She waved her uncle over. ‘The house on the bluff is bigger than the others and it’s cedar colour isn’t used elsewhere.’ Her fingers raised as if wanting to touch the house but didn’t. ‘The couple on the striped towels are in the centre of everything. It alters the balance of the composition. I can’t imagine Sutherland placing them there. And those green stripes; they’re too bright. What do you think?’ She stepped back to let her uncle look.
‘I think you’re going to turn me grey before my time.’ He rubbed a football-deformed hand through his thick hair. It reminded her of the contorted branches of the Meadow Tree.
Her uncle clicked his fingers. Clara flinched.
‘I thought I’d lost you.’
‘Seriously though,’ her uncle said, looking at the Sutherland. ‘Your mother was the same. She picked up oddities; things that didn’t work together. Apart from the little sister stuff, she drove me crazy constantly rearranging my room, changing colours, bedding, pictures. But my favourite thing was when she rainbowed my books. I never told her I loved it.’ He slipped his arm around her shoulder, her head fit snug under his arm. The coarse hairs on his sinewy forearms, tanned from years of outdoor labour, tickled the top of her shoulders.
‘What does that mean?’ Clara asked.
‘She arranged my books by the colours of the rainbow.’ He winked at her. ‘I too can pretty things up.’
‘Adding a canopy and striped cushion seats to an old fishing boat and presenting it to your wife for your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary does not equal pretty.’
Her uncle laughed. He wiped his thumb across the tiny brass plaque at the bottom of the Sutherland frame. ‘I’m not sure, but if you are just like your mum then let’s get that gallery owner of yours to look at it. What’s his name?’
‘Guy Grenfield. And he’s not mine.’
‘Hmm, but I think he’d like you to be his.’
A capricious flush overtook her upper body and burned her cheeks.
‘Come on,’ her uncle grabbed her by the arm, ‘let’s get you a drink. The painting isn’t going anywhere.’
Clara allowed herself to be dragged away. She wiped her hand on her pants but the strange nature of the house in the painting seemed to have been imprinted on her fingertips.
Sherryn Hind lives in Melbourne with her husband, two children and two rabbits. She grew up in rural Victoria, spending most of her time with her head in a book. Inspired by the books she loved, she picked up a pen and began to write. This is her first manuscript.
To contact the author email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +61 (0)458 636 935.