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Authors: Nicki Edwards

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Chapter 13

Isabelle’s truck’s here.

The three-word text message from Leah was enough to put Matt’s heart into an erratic rhythm. For the past three weeks, he had dreamed about seeing Isabelle again, but he hadn’t breathed a word of his feelings to a soul. Had Leah used her female intuition and guessed what was going on in his brain? He shuddered at the thought. If so, he would have some explaining to do. He looked at his phone again and frowned. Why was she telling him the truck had arrived? What was he supposed to do? Surely, she didn’t expect him to help unload. That’s what removalists were paid for.

The massive truck had driven past only minutes earlier and he had wondered who it belonged to. The Victorian license plates on the truck indicated it could be Isabelle’s truck, but it also might have belonged to one of the other families. They were coming from Melbourne too. It was a huge van, and Matt didn’t think Isabelle would have that much stuff.

The previous day, two trucks had rolled into town simultaneously – one from New South Wales and the other from Queensland – and the newcomers were welcomed with drinks at the pub that night. Matt hadn’t caught sight of any of them since – he figured they were still unpacking.

Matt locked the station and went home to get changed before heading up the street towards Isabelle’s house. As much as he couldn’t wait to see her again, he forced himself not to hurry. He didn’t want to look too keen.

His phone beeped a second time and he glanced down at the text.
Are you coming?

Leah. Again.

On my way.

He increased his pace and within minutes turned into Mountview Street, startled by the number of cars and people gathered at the house. A ramp ran straight from the truck onto the front path and many hands were making light work. Surely, they didn’t need him.

Isabelle came through the door in loose jeans and a plain T-shirt. Matt’s breath caught in the back of his throat and he stopped, statue-still, to watch her. He drew in another unsteady breath. He’d forgotten how striking she was. She twisted around to point at something and Matt frowned at the way her clothes hung from her already tiny frame. She turned again and her tired eyes caught sight of him. For a brief moment Matt saw her face light up, but then one of the removalists asked her a question, diverting her attention. She followed the man inside, pointing in the direction of where she wanted a couch to go.

‘Nice to see you finally made it, mate,’ Joe said, interrupting the direction Matt’s thoughts – and eyes – were heading.

Matt stepped up onto the veranda beside Joe, and the old timber protested against his weight. Left empty since Hilary moved out six months earlier, the little miner’s cottage was more rundown than most of the others in the street, but it was still a perfect house for a Peppercorn family.

‘You’ve got the best spot here,’ Matt said. ‘I’m sure you’re keeping everyone under control.’ He was secretly pleased Joe wasn’t getting in the way by offering to help. The old bloke forgot his age some days.

‘Bossing us around, more like it,’ Leah said with a chuckle as she came out of the house and overheard Matt’s comment. She put her hands on her hips. ‘Nice of you to finally make it.’

‘I was at work.’

Leah clapped her hands together. ‘Well you’re here now, so come on!’

‘Mate, I reckon you’ve been told,’ Joe said, with a deep-throated laugh. ‘Better get to it! Always do as the woman tells you. Best piece of advice I’ll ever give you.’

Matt stood and dug his hands into his back pockets. ‘I don’t know if Isabelle wants my help.’

‘Don’t be an idiot. Take a look at her – little bird like she is needs all the help she can get, especially from a bloke as big as you. Go on, go and flex those muscles and prove your worth.’

Matt shook his head again. He didn’t think Isabelle would appreciate being described that way. He climbed into the back of the truck and introduced himself to the removal men. It was clear from the reception he received that he was a welcome sight. Matt was used to it – because of his size all his friends figured he was good at lifting heavy objects. Lucky it was true.

Matt helped manoeuvre the large stainless steel fridge onto the trolley, and as he wheeled it carefully down the ramp he caught sight of Isabelle again.

‘Hi!’

‘Hi.’ Isabelle returned his smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Her skin was pale, and she had heavy bags under her cloudy blue eyes. One touch and it seemed like she would shatter into a million pieces.

‘Where do you want this?’ he asked.

Isabelle’s face softened and her lip curled upwards in a forced smile. ‘I’d say given it’s a fridge, Matt, it’s obvious where it goes. I only hope it’s going to fit.’

He stifled a smile and headed inside.

Matt kept busy, and with the number of people helping it took less than two hours to unload the entire truck. He found himself wondering what sort of house Isabelle had lived in. If her belongings were anything to go by, she was used to a life of luxury. Her furniture was high quality and most of it modern. She had so much furniture much of it needed to be stored in the old garage out the back. Matt carefully covered what he could with sheets. What was she going to do with it all?

Isabelle kept busy too, directing the traffic inside the house and keeping her kids under control. Each time Matt passed her in the hallway, he noted her energy levels waning. She was fading fast, and if he guessed right, she was on the verge of breaking down in tears.

Was she having second thoughts about moving, or was she simply exhausted after a big day? Or was it grief? Judging by the dark smudges under her eyes and the expression she wore when she didn’t think anyone was looking, she was carrying a heavy load. His protector mode kicked in hard and he found himself wanting to pull her into his arms and soothe away the sadness creasing her otherwise perfect brow.

*

By the time the last box was unloaded and the doors of the truck slammed shut, it was pitch black.

‘Where’s Isabelle gone?’ Matt asked as the truck pulled away from the kerb and headed back from where it had come, the red tail lights fading in the distance. He hadn’t seen her for ages.

‘Fran and Jim arrived. They took her and the kids back to the farm for the night,’ Leah said.

‘That’s a great idea. Fran’s a good sort. Isabelle’s got a big job ahead of her unpacking all of this.’ Matt surveyed the mess.

Mismatched cardboard boxes were everywhere. Isabelle had given directions for where each piece of furniture should go, but the place still looked like chaos reigned and would do so for the days to come.

Leah grinned. ‘I’m sure by this time tomorrow it’ll all be sorted.’

‘Tomorrow? You’re confident. It’d take me weeks to get all of this unpacked and organised on my own. And I don’t have two kids underfoot.’

‘Oh, ye of little faith,’ Leah said with a hearty laugh. ‘You haven’t seen what country women are capable of!’

Chapter 14

Isabelle woke with a headache and it took her a moment to get her bearings. The clock on the bedside table said it was still early, but the pale, thin strip of light beneath the blinds indicated the sun was well up. Outside a dog barked and somewhere inside an old kettle whistled as it boiled, reminding Isabelle of her childhood visits to her grandmother’s house.

In a moment of clarity Isabelle remembered – they were at the farm. Fran had miraculously arrived with impeccable timing moments after the final box was unloaded from the truck. She dragged them all out of the house and insisted they stay overnight with her. Fletcher and Mietta were overjoyed. After Fran fed them all, Isabelle fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

She pulled a polar fleece dressing gown off the hook on the back door – Fran had thought of everything – and yanked on thick socks. The morning air still had a chill to it. Padding her way down the hallway towards the kitchen, she peered into the rooms where Fletcher and Mietta were sleeping, only to find their beds both empty. Surprised but not alarmed, she entered the kitchen and found Fran at the large stovetop.

She turned and wiped her hands on one corner of her apron. ‘Good morning, love. Did you sleep well?’

‘I did.’

Isabelle was about to ask where her children were when there was a commotion at the back door. They spilled inside, their faces flushed.

‘We’ve been out collecting eggs,’ Mietta cried out.

‘Shh, Mietta, no need to yell. What time is it anyway?’

‘Ten past seven,’ Fran replied cheerfully.

Isabelle groaned. ‘Oh Fran, I’m so sorry. Did they wake you?’

‘No, I’m always up before the birds. They woke when they heard me banging around in here.’

‘We’re having pancakes,’ Mietta said.

‘And bacon and eggs,’ Fletcher added.

‘That’s why Fran sent us out to get the eggs,’ Mietta explained solemnly. ‘And I didn’t break one.’

‘Not yet at least,’ Fran chuckled. ‘Here, you’d better hand me those.’ She took the eggs from Mietta’s hands. ‘Go and grab a hot shower, Isabelle. I’ll call you when breakfast is ready, then we’ll head into town to your house and get you organised.’

Isabelle’s heart sank at the thought. ‘The worst bit will be the unpacking.’

‘Don’t you worry about that, sweetie. It’ll be sorted in no time.’

*

It was two hours later before they finally climbed into Fran’s car to head back into town. Fletcher
had to
have a quick ride on the quad bike with Jim, and Mietta
had to
help Fran pick vegetables and water the gardens. Isabelle tried not to let the delay annoy her, but Fran eventually caught the look on her face and helped round up the kids.

When Isabelle turned the key in the lock of her new front door for the second time, it was with a sense of trepidation, knowing how much work she had in front of her. She gasped in disbelief as she stepped inside and looked around. Someone had assembled her bed and topped it with her favourite linen and pillows. Wardrobe doors opened to reveal all of her clothes neatly hanging and folded. Mietta’s room looked like a princess’s paradise. Fletcher’s room was neat and tidy, not that it would stay that way for long.

In a state of growing astonishment, Isabelle walked down the hallway to the kitchen. She passed the lounge room and noted all her books and trinkets were on display on her bookshelves. Tears filled her eyes. In the kitchen, no evidence remained that they had only arrived the night before. Not a box in sight. Whoever had done this had worked throughout the night.

Isabelle walked around in a daze, opening random cupboard doors and drawers. She was dumbfounded. All her belongings fit. The next shock came when she opened the pantry and found it full and overflowing with food. She looked at Fran, barely able to make out her face through tears.

‘Who did all of this?’

Fran didn’t reply, but the grin on her face said more than words.

‘You knew!’ Isabelle accused. ‘You knew they were going to do this and that’s why you kept us at the farm for so long this morning.’

Fran nodded.

There was a knock at the front door and Isabelle hurried up the hallway to open it, her shoes click-clacking loudly on the timber floors. She flung open the door and the loud cheer and shouts of ‘surprise’ indeed surprised her. Her breath caught and tears overflowed at the sight of the group of women gathered at her door. She didn’t recognise anyone other than Leah, who stood front and centre, holding a large Tupperware container in both hands. The women behind her held similar plastic containers of various shapes and sizes.

‘I didn’t think you’d be the type of woman to appreciate flowers as a welcome gift!’ Leah said by way of greeting.

Isabelle wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. ‘Come in,’ she said finally, ushering the band of women into the narrow hallway.

As they passed by, each woman stopped to kiss her on the cheek and introduce herself before they all took over her kitchen with their laughter and love. Isabelle had never experienced such warmth and kindness. If this was country hospitality, she was never going to leave.

Mietta and Fletcher were busy opening the lids of the containers and checking out the pantry when Leah shooed them away. ‘Go on, kids, off you go, give your mum space. I’ll call you when it’s time to eat.’

Fletcher fled straight away and moments later the PlayStation came on. Mietta took further encouragement, but eventually wandered off quietly.

‘How do I say thank you?’ Isabelle asked.

‘The best way is to get to know people and get involved in the community. That’s what the Peppercorn Project is all about.’

Isabelle’s brows knit together. ‘I’ll bet you didn’t help out the other families like this though.’

Leah shrugged. ‘Not everyone needed as much help as you do.’

Isabelle straightened. Since Dan’s accident she hated being on the receiving end of everyone’s ‘help’ and charity.

Leah caught the look and held up her hand. ‘It’s okay to need help sometimes, Issie,’ she said softly. She touched Isabelle on the arm. ‘Is it okay if I call you Issie?’

Isabelle nodded. ‘That’s what my friends call me.’

Leah smiled. ‘Well, my friend, when you’re back on your feet I’m sure you’ll pay all of this forward in a different way.’

*

Isabelle spent the rest of the week settling into the new house. With the amount of food in the pantry and fridge, she hadn’t needed to venture out to the shops once. On Sunday night after another casserole dinner taken from the stash in the freezer, she was in the middle of making a list of the things she needed to buy when the doorbell rang.

‘I’ll get it,’ Mietta shouted, as she bolted for the door.

‘No!’ Isabelle called out. ‘You don’t know who it might be.’

Isabelle had always been security conscious. Just because they had moved to a town where everyone apparently knew everyone, she was not about to change her habits now.

‘Oh, Mum,’ Fletcher said, rolling his eyes. ‘Who’s it going to be? A mass murderer? As if they’re going to knock.’

‘That’s not the point.’

Mietta stood at the door like a puppy wagging her tail, as Isabelle opened the door cautiously and smiled.

‘So you’re still here,’ Leah said by way of greeting. ‘G’day, sweetie,’ she said, rubbing the top of Mietta’s head.

Mietta grinned and hugged Leah before going back to watch television.

‘It’ll be bedtime soon,’ Isabelle called out to her daughter’s departing back.

‘So can I come in?’ Leah asked.

‘Of course you can.’

‘Bets were on to see if you’d done a runner. No one’s seen you since you moved in,’ Leah said as she walked through the house to the kitchen.

‘What?’ Isabelle exclaimed, following her. She crossed her arms. ‘I’ve been busy getting the house sorted. I know you and the other women did all the unpacking, but …’ She was just making excuses.

Leah tilted her head to one side and raised her eyebrows.

‘You’ve been sent to check up on me, haven’t you?’ Isabelle felt strangely deflated. She had hoped Leah had dropped in to visit as a friend, not because someone had sent her. No doubt Rachel, making sure Isabelle hadn’t reneged on her end of the deal.

Concern laced Leah’s eyes. ‘No, I haven’t been sent to check on you. But I have come to make sure you’re okay.’

Isabelle’s shoulders slumped. ‘Yeah, I’m okay.’

‘Like I believe you,’ Leah said, flicking on the kettle and pulling mugs from an overhead cupboard. ‘Coffee or tea?’

‘Tea would be perfect.’

Isabelle plonked down at the table and watched Leah bustle around the kitchen like it was her own. Leah found the container she was looking for in the pantry and pulled out homemade Anzac biscuits, which she placed on a plate.

‘You’ve lost more weight. Have you been eating?’

She sank lower in the chair. ‘
Yes
, I’ve been eating. Thanks to you and the awesome women from the CWA, I haven’t cooked a meal myself yet.’ She wasn’t going to admit most days she barely picked at the food in front of her.

‘Have you rearranged everything we unpacked?’

‘No, you all did an amazing job. Everything is exactly where I would have put it myself. It’s just I, um – I started to go through Dan’s things,’ Isabelle admitted. ‘His clothes.’

Leah sat beside Isabelle and pushed a mug across the table towards her. Isabelle grasped it with both hands, allowing the warmth to seep into her cold fingers.

‘How was that?’ Leah asked.

‘It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. I can’t explain it, but Dan’s things don’t fit here in this house. When they were hanging in the wardrobe in Torquay I saw them every time I opened the cupboard, and for a brief second I smelled him and could pretend he was coming back.’ Isabelle took a sip of her tea. ‘Most of them are still boxed up from the move, so I think I’ll leave them and drop them off to an op shop. I started to sort through them but …’ Her voice trailed off. ‘Fletch already snaffled Dan’s hoodies and things after he died.’ She paused again and took a shaky breath. ‘I guess it makes it all seem so final, you know? Moving out of the house was hard enough on my own. Now I’m starting again without him. It hurts and I hate it.’

‘You loved him,’ Leah said. It was as much a question as a statement. She blew on her tea, looking at Isabelle over the rim of her mug.

Isabelle nodded and closed her eyes. ‘More than life.’

‘I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like.’

‘One of the women in my support group said it feels like you’re only made up of skin.’

Leah frowned. ‘What did she mean?’

‘You feel empty and hollow inside. Like your body is made up of nothing except skin and bones. There’s nothing warm left inside you.’

Leah took another biscuit from the plate between them. She dunked her biscuit in her cup of tea, not taking her eyes off Isabelle’s face.

‘For me it feels like I’m always wearing a mask, you know? I’ve become the master of disguise. The smile you see is one tiny moment away from becoming a silent scream.’

‘Oh, Isabelle.’

She sighed heavily. ‘I’m a member of a club I never wanted to belong to.’

There was silence except for the rhythmic ticking of the clock on the wall.

‘Forgive me if I’m out of line, but can you ever see yourself loving anyone else, or is it still too soon?’

Isabelle tossed the question around while she took another unsteady sip of her tea. She’d hated the way her mother had asked the same question only weeks after Dan’s death. Isabelle appreciated Leah’s candour. She was straightforward, but not in a way Isabelle found offensive.

‘Dan once said if he died I should remarry, but I’m not sure. I think each person only has one soul mate and my soul mate is Dan.
Was
Dan,’ Isabelle quickly corrected herself. ‘I loved him with all my heart, and while I can’t see myself ever falling in love again, I also don’t want to end up single, bitter and lonely.’ Isabelle hugged herself as a chill went down her spine.

‘If the right person came along, do you think you’d be open to it?’

Isabelle stared out the back window. It was dark outside and all she could see was the reflection of them sitting at the table. ‘I suppose so, yes. But I’m not looking, that’s for sure, and whoever I meet will have to adore Fletch and Mietta. And vice versa.’

The conversation had gone deeper than Isabelle had anticipated, but it was time to change the subject. Back to the reason Leah was sitting in her kitchen on a Sunday night.

‘Why have you come over to see if I’m still here?’ Isabelle asked. ‘Who thinks I’ve “done a runner”, as you put it?’

Leah tipped her head back and laughed. The sound filled the small kitchen, warming it. ‘No one. I was pulling your leg. We thought we’d have seen you at the pub by now, that’s all.’

‘Who?’

‘Everyone! Most nights the regulars head down to the pub for at least one drink or a bite to eat. All the other newbies have made it there for a meal at least once since they arrived in town. You haven’t, and it’s been noted. You haven’t even met the other Peppercorn families.’

‘But I can’t go to the pub at night, I’ve got the kids.’

‘Rubbish. You can bring them along. They can sit in the dining room. You’ve seen what it’s like. It’s family friendly.’

‘Not at night,’ Isabelle retorted. She caught the look of surprise on Leah’s face and changed her tone. ‘I like them to be in bed at their usual bedtimes. I don’t like to muck around with their routines.’

Leah’s eyebrows rose in surprise. ‘I’d say picking them up and moving interstate has mucked them around without trying to be a stickler for routines.’ She stared at Isabelle. ‘Not that I’d know anything about kids, but I reckon yours are resilient, and keeping them locked inside isn’t the best of ideas.’

Isabelle crossed her arms. ‘They’re not locked inside. I’m letting them get their bearings, that’s all.’

‘What? Inside? Has Fletcher been outside since you arrived?’

‘Of course he has. But I’ve been so tired and haven’t felt up to getting out and about to explore the town yet. And I told you, I had Dan’s things to go through.’

BOOK: The Peppercorn Project
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