Cleo Johansen brushed out her long dark hair, tied it up into the bun she preferred for work and checked herself out in the mirror. She tried to blot out the memory of the conversation she had with Hannah the previous evening before her daughter had stormed out.
‘But, Mum,’ Hannah said, ‘I’m twenty-one. You can’t expect me to keep living here.’ She shuddered, as if living with Cleo was a fate worse than death.
Cleo sighed. When Hannah managed to obtain a teaching position in Bellbird Bay Primary School after graduating from New England University, Cleo had been delighted, envisaging lots of mother-daughter time together. Hannah’s decision to look for a share house with other young people was a blow.
It seemed like she’d lived in Bellbird Bay for ever, but it was just over five years since she and Hannah had moved here from the Byron Bay hinterland after the death of Cleo’s husband and Hannah’s father. Stan’s death had taken them both by surprise. The strong, fit man she’d married had dropped dead from a sudden heart attack, leaving them both devastated with grief and without an income. After developing a subsistence lifestyle on the small acreage she and Stan had worked for the previous twenty years, Cleo knew she wouldn’t be able to continue on her own.
Starting over in Bellbird Bay, a town she’d only ever read about, proved to be a good option.
It had been difficult to prise Hannah away from her school and friends, but, without Stan, there was no way they could stay, and Hannah had made new friends in Bellbird Bay, quickly settling into the beach culture. Now, after three years at university, returning only for the holidays, and after spending three weeks with Stan’s sister in California, she was back to start her new job.
When she had come home from work the previous day to be met with her daughter glowing with excitement, Cleo should have heeded the warning signs, but she’d only been pleased Hannah was home again and didn’t for one moment imagine she planned to move out.
‘Who are the girls you plan to share with?’ Cleo asked. ‘Are they from school?’
Hannah looked sheepish, but defiant. ‘It’s Owen and Nate, Mum. You remember Owen? He’s the local surf champion. He has his own business now, designing surfboards. It’s cool.’
Cleo knew who she was talking about. Owen Rankin had made the headlines when he not only won the local surf championships to qualify for Hawaii, but made a good showing there, too. He was another local boy made good – there were quite a few of those, surprising for such a small town on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast – and the town was proud of him. But that didn’t mean Cleo wanted her daughter to share a house with him. She’d never been entirely comfortable with the surf culture permeating her new hometown.
‘And who’s Nate?’ Cleo knew when she was beaten. At twenty-one, and after spending three years away at university, Hannah was a law unto herself. But to plan on sharing a house with two boys…
‘Nate McNeil.’ Hannah blushed. ‘He’s only been in Bellbird for a couple of years. He works behind the bar at the surf club and helps out with Owen and his dad. His mother moved up here. She’s living with Martin Cooper. You know, the travel photographer. Isn’t he related to your boss?’
McNeil – he must be Ailsa McNeil’s son. She knew Ailsa, who was a good friend of Bev Cooper. Bev ownedThe Pandanus Garden Centre and Café, the café which Cleo managed. They’d met a few times when Ailsa had been at the café.
‘Hmm,’ she said. At least they weren’t complete strangers. But if Hannah was so determined to spread her wings, why couldn’t she have chosen a couple of girls – other teachers – with whom to demonstrate her independence?
Finally satisfied with her appearance, Cleo set about preparing breakfast. The one thing she loved above all else was to cook. It had been what drove her to own her own café in Byron Bay when she was in her early twenties, and the talent which had secured her the job atThe Pandanus Café. And it was what had got her through the grief of losing her husband.
‘I’ll be popping in all the time,’ Hannah reminded her when they were eating the French toast topped with blueberries and maple syrup. It was one of Hannah’s favourite breakfast treats, and Cleo had prepared it in an attempt to make up for her disapproval of her daughter’s plans.
‘Hmm.’ Cleo sipped the lemon and ginger tea with which she liked to start her day. Then she gazed across the table at her daughter. Hannah looked so much like her father with her thick blonde hair and blue eyes the colour of the ocean on a stormy day. She sometimes thought they should have named her Stormy. It had been Stan’s nickname for her to match both her eyes and her moods.
She knew there was no sense in harbouring a grudge with Hannah. The girl would only disappear into her shell or, even worse, create a huge fuss. ‘How was your evening?’ she asked. Cleo knew Hannah had spent the evening with a couple of the girls she knew who’d taken jobs locally as soon as they finished school.
‘Good.’ Hannah yawned, picked up a blueberry and popped it into her mouth. ‘Deb and Margie are heading off to Europe next week. Half their luck.’
‘You don’t really wish you were going with them, do you?’ Cleo wished they were the ones Hannah had chosen to share a house with.
‘Not really.’ Hannah took a swig of the orange juice which she preferred to drink with breakfast. ‘I think I’m going to love teaching and having my very own class. I loved my pracs. And I can’t wait to earn real money.’
Cleo laughed. ‘So, what you earned in your holiday job at the café wasn’t real?’
‘You know what I mean.’ She poured more maple syrup onto her pancake. ‘I’m meeting Owen and Nate today. We’re going to look at some places to rent.’ She glanced at her mother out of the corner of her eye. ‘You don’t really mind, do you?’
‘I suppose not.’ At least she wouldn’t be far away. But it had been lonely when she was off at uni, and when this position in the local school came up Cleo had hoped… What had she hoped? That Hannah would take pity on her mother and keep her company?
It would have been different if Stan had lived. Everything would have been different.
Cleo thought back to her own life when she was Hannah’s age. She couldn’t wait to shake off the shackles of her parents and the house she’d grown up in, to enjoy her freedom. She’d left Sydney and headed north to Byron Bay which, to the excited eighteen-year-old, had seemed to be the epitome of sophistication. She’d soon discovered her mistake, but by then had found work in a local café and made friends. She worked all the hours she could, saving madly, then her parents died one after the other and she found herself inheriting enough money to buy the café she craved.
When the tall, handsome American walked into the café one day with his broad shoulders, tanned face, sun-bleached hair, lazy smile and twinkling blue eyes, she was lost. And when Stan Johansen started sharing his dreams about subsistence living, she was hooked. She fell in love with this man who was unlike anyone she’d ever known and knew she’d do anything he asked.
They’d been happy years, living the dream and eking out a living on the small acreage they’d bought with the proceeds of the sale of Cleo’s café, and she never regretted it. The birth of their daughter had been the icing on the cake, and Hannah had enjoyed a loving and carefree childhood. But when Stan died, something inside Cleo died, too. She knew she couldn’t remain there without him.
Cleo had moved to Bellbird Bay to start a new life. She’d bought a small house in the older part of town, found the job in the café and begun to put down roots, living for the times when Hannah was home. Now, it seemed she was going to have to start over yet again.