Cleo was exhausted after another busy day at the café. She was regretting having promised to take part in the working bee at the house where Hannah was living. But a promise was a promise, and it would save her having to go home to her lonely house. She drank a large glass of water, tidied her hair, grimaced at her reflection in the mirror, renewed her lipstick, picked up the cartons of food she’d promised to take with her and set off.
When she arrived at the little house, she could see the results of the others’ efforts right away. The grass in the front yard which had been knee-high was now short, and there were flowering plants along the borders of the path and below the window. There was no one to be seen, but Cleo could hear voices and laughter coming from the backyard. Lifting the cartons from the car, she walked along the side of the house to where three adults were wrestling a table onto the cracked courtyard while the three youngsters were watching with amusement and calling out encouragement.
‘Why don’t you do it, if you know so much?’ the man she remembered introducing himself as Will was yelling. But the two boys only laughed. Hannah was there, too, Cleo saw, and she was the first to notice her mother.
‘Mum!’ Hannah called, climbing down from the wide windowsill where she was perched to hug Cleo. ‘You’re just in time. I think these three need some help.’ She laughed and gestured to the group with the table.
‘Not funny.’ Ailsa let her end of the table down carefully and stood upright, one hand to her lower back. ‘Oof, not as young as I used to be. Hi, Cleo, glad you could make it. We need another adult here. These youngsters are no use.’ She nodded to where Owen and Nate were still seated by the back door. ‘No staying power.’
‘I think it’s time to knock off,’ Martin said, placing one hand on the now steady table.
‘I brought food.’ Cleo held up the containers she’d brought along as her contribution to the day.
‘Thanks, Cleo. You timed it well. These three gave up ten minutes ago and left us to carry the table from Martin’s ute. It’s one Bev’s had in her shed for years and will be fine once it’s been sanded and scrubbed – and maybe given a coat of varnish.’ She looked pointedly at Nate.
‘Okay, Mum. We’re not altogether useless. We have been working all day – and you three did start to carry the table when we were still inside.’
‘Enough!’ Will held up one hand. ‘Why don’t you fetch the beer that’s left, Owen, and I think I saw a bottle of wine in the fridge, Hannah. Nate, can you bring out some plates and cutlery?’
Suddenly, the three were energised and set to following Will’s instructions.
‘How did you manage that?’ Ailsa asked in surprise.
‘Practice.’ Will grinned. He looked across at Cleo.
It was a strange look, almost as if he was assessing her. She shrank into herself, glad when Ailsa moved towards her and gave her a peck on the cheek. ‘Good to see you again, Cleo. And thanks for bringing the food. Let me take these.’ She reached out to take a couple of the containers Cleo had almost forgotten she was still holding.
Nate and Owen did as they’d been instructed, Martin and Will brought a number of unmatched chairs from the house, and Hannah appeared with a bottle of white wine and glasses. Cleo and Ailsa opened the containers of food, releasing delicious aromas of chicken curry and a spicy Thai beef dish which made everyone’s mouth water, and soon they were all seated around the old wooden table with enough food and drink to satisfy an army, as Will put it.
‘Thanks, Cleo, that was delicious,’ Ailsa said, when they had demolished all the dishes Cleo had provided.
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get here earlier,’ Cleo said. ‘You’ve been busy; the place looks amazing.’ She gazed across the backyard which was just as tidy as the front one had been.
‘And Nate’s mum has been busy inside,’ Hannah put in. ‘I’ll show you later, Mum.’
‘This has been your contribution, and it’s most welcome.’ Ailsa put a hand on Cleo’s arm. ‘Now, I have something I want to say to you.’
‘No!’ Will said, holding up one hand as if to stop her from speaking.
Cleo looked at him. What was the matter with the man? Today he was wearing a disreputable tee-shirt bearing the logo of a band she and Stan had seen play at Byron Bay many years ago, his hair was escaping from that ridiculous ponytail he wore – as if pretending he was still a teenager – and he looked as if he was about to explode.
She turned back to look at Ailsa who was grinning, a wicked gleam in her eyes. What was going on?
‘Not in front of…’ Will said, nodding to where Nate, Owen and Hannah were watching them with surprise.
‘This is grown-up talk,’ Ailsa said. ‘Why don’t you youngsters take the plates inside and make yourselves scarce?’
‘But…’ Nate began then, at an almost imperceptible nod from Martin, he rose. ‘Come on,’ he said to Owen and Hannah. ‘We’re not wanted here. We’ll be inside when you’re ready for us again,’ he said to Ailsa with a grimace, as he shooed a protesting Owen and Hannah inside ahead of him.
‘Now,’ Ailsa said leaning forward confidentially, ‘Will has this small problem.’
Cleo glanced at Will who was burying his face in his hands.
‘There’s this woman who believes he’s God’s gift and won’t leave him alone, so we… I…’ Ailsa corrected, as both Martin and Will seemed about to contradict her, ‘…thought we could provide a distraction. If you and Will pretended to be…’ she waved her hands in the air.
‘What? You want me… and Will…?’ Cleo looked at Will trying to identify the expression on his face. Was it dismay, distress, annoyance … or hope? She didn’t wait to find out. What a ludicrous idea to imagine she’d be willing to become involved with another man, or that anyone would believe there could be anything between her and Will. ‘I don’t think so.’
But Ailsa wasn’t going to be easily dissuaded. ‘Why not? You’re both empty nesters. It’s a perfect solution. Isn’t it?’ she turned to Martin who was attempting to hide his amusement.