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Bea is 53, and she's just lost her husband after 30 years of marriage. To distract herself from grief, she throws herself into her work running the Reservoir Street Kitchen in one of Sydney's most fashionable districts. But then an email from a cafe-owner in Edinburgh prompts her to take a trip to Scotland in the depths of winter. Her journey will be one of self-discovery, as she is drawn back to a secret past—and a secret love—that she has tried to forget.
|Publisher:||Head of Zeus|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Amanda Prowse is the author of several novels, including What Have I Done?
Read an Excerpt
The Christmas Cafe
By Amanda Prowse
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2015 Amanda Prowse
All rights reserved.
Bea slowly opened one eye, peeking from her pillow at the new morning. The remnants of a dream lurked in her consciousness – she had been taken back in time, to the beat of a drum and the sound of a wide-decked, tall ship pushing through the waves. The wild torment of a younger body that yearned for the touch of her man, a memory of dancing under the stars on a swaying deck, the feel of his cotton shirt beneath her fingertips, his eyes, locked on hers, pulling her in. And his voice, deep and resolute, his words loud and clear, spoken on a still, hot, summer's night as the cicadas chirped and the black flying-fox bats circled overhead. 'I want to take you away. I want to make a home where you and I are free to love each other without judgement, without having to hide. I wish I could marry you, right here, right now. I won't ever let you go. I'll carry you with me, in here ...' His two fingers had patted his chest in the rhythm of a heartbeat.
She sighed. The sun streamed in through the open window, casting spiky shadows of the full-bloomed Queensland lacebark against the wooden floor. She instinctively put a hand out to the other side of the bed. It was hard to believe that it had been a full year since she had said goodbye to Peter in that dimly lit hospital ward; but the pain was easing, a little. What surprised her were moments like these, when she reached out but failed to find him lying next to her in his stripy blue pyjamas, or when she wanted to call him with some titbit of information.
Bea glanced guiltily at Peter's side of the bed. Even after all these years, an unsettling dream still had the power to do that to her: the flash of a memory, an image, a word. It could transport her back to a time before Peter, a time before her whole world had unravelled. And then, mercifully, he had swept in and saved her with his kindness.
She threw back the cool cotton bedspread and swung her legs onto the stripped wooden floor, letting her silk pyjamas unbunch themselves and slip crinkle-free down her legs, the sleeves falling in neat gaping triangles over her arms. She rather liked the contrast of the cream colour against the faint liver spots on the back of her hand. Deciding against her vintage silk kimono dressing gown, she left it on the bed and stood in front of the tall mirror, where she stretched her arms high above her head, turning sharply to the left as she waited for the familiar click of her neck. Next she bent forward with her hands clasped over her head and hung that way for a minute until her back, like her PJs, was kink-free. These were just a couple of the little rituals that she performed at the beginning of every day.
Bea held her breath and pulled the blind. She was, as ever, filled with joy and relief at the sight of Reservoir Street below, so very different from the dingy bedsit in Kings Cross she and Wyatt had shared for six years. Even after so many decades, the memory of that tiny hot room had the power to make her skin itch. She smiled as she took in the steep street with its pastel-coloured Victorian terraced properties and stunning wrought-iron balconies that sat proudly on either side of the thoroughfare. A runner laboured up the incline on the opposite side of the street, his headphones firmly in place. He raised his hand at the sight of her – funny how everyone knew her because of the business.
She sighed. It was a glorious day full of summer promise, and despite the loneliness that threatened there was something rather lovely about this early hour, the stillness of the place before the ensuing madness of the day. She had always been an early riser and this had proved most beneficial to the success of the Reservoir Street Kitchen. Up with the lark, she would have the lights on, ovens hungry and toasty, kettles filled, bread prepped and deliveries sorted and stowed before Kim and Tait made an appearance.
Bea took one last fond look at the slight dent on Peter's side of the bed, which would never, she hoped, regain its original shape, allowing her to imagine him only temporarily absent, sipping coffee down at The Rocks or fetching the morning paper. That made it easier somehow, kidding herself that he would be back sometime soon.
Radio 2GB babbled away in the background and Alan Jones' unmistakeable cadences filled the room, updating her on the state of the world. It was all she needed to lift her spirits. She still hadn't heard from Wyatt or Sarah with regard to Christmas and at that precise moment she hated her need of them. She tried to remain stoical, tried not to dwell on the fact that she only saw or heard from them once a month, but the truth was, she did mind, especially because this sparse, inadequate contact meant she was kept away from her granddaughter, Flora, a bubbly thirteen-year-old whom Bea adored. In recent years, on Flora's birthday she had made a point of going to the house in Manly twenty minutes early so as to catch a little time with Flora before she went out to play with her buddies. And each year, after Sarah's Christmas barbecue, they would sit together on the sand and chat. Bea would ask Flora what bands were 'in', and Flora would tease her for being an old granny, even though she'd only turned fifty-three this year. It wasn't much of an interaction, but as Bea reminded herself, they had busy, full lives and that little bit of contact was better than nothing.
She made herself a mug of Earl Grey with a large slice of lemon and stood in front of the open windows by the Juliet balcony as she looked out over the warm Sydney morning. The big sky was clear in its azure brilliance, and she allowed her mind to wander back to the same time last year, to a similarly perfect summer's day, which had seemed to spite her sadness. It was seven days after Peter had passed away and she'd sat on the sofa, resplendent in understated aubergine, remote and aloof, like a queen bee attended by a swarm of fluttering guests. Just like at weddings, everyone had wanted a small amount of time with her, the main attraction. The trick was not to monopolise or talk too much; funerals were all about short, meaningful sentences. 'So sorry for your loss ...' 'It's a blessing ...' 'A happy release ...' 'He was a great bloke.' The offerings had all been pretty much identical in both content and the manner in which they were delivered, heads cocked to one side, doleful expressions, and the volume barely above a whisper.
The only original sentiment had come from Flora, who had seen it as more of a party and had been refreshingly oblivious as to why it might not be appropriate to laugh loudly, sing or throw snacks down to the disinterested little wattlebird resting in the tree below the balcony. Bea had watched Wyatt glare at his daughter from the other side of the room – probably more effective than actually engaging with her. She realised that Flora had always been that way, slightly out of kilter with what was expected by the rest of the pack. And, truthfully, she approved of Flora's attitude: funerals should be about celebrating a person's life. Peter's wake had been far too sedate; the delicate chink of glass against glass and the barely audible hum of conversation had been oppressive. She had watched Peter's sister and brother conversing in whispers behind cupped palms, covertly raising their eyebrows and shaking their heads between sips of wine, in a way that made everyone in the room feel really awkward, excluded.
It was no secret that they didn't like her and, truth be told, she wasn't overly fond of them; she still remembered the way they had cold-shouldered her when they'd first met, all those years ago. The conversation as to why they held Bea in such low regard had never been had, but she suspected it was because she fell way below the standard they would have expected for someone like Peter. She was his first bride and a lot younger than him – a mere twenty-five years old to his mature forty-seven, which they probably didn't approve of either. Arriving out of nowhere with a young son in tow and no respectable backstory – she had not been tragically widowed in her youth, nor forced to care for an abandoned child that was not her own – she was considered damaged goods. Now, having laid Peter to rest in a quiet grave in a sunny spot at South Head General Cemetery, overlooking the Tasman Sea, their dislike of her had morphed into resentment; this Bea knew was because the bulk of Peter's estate was going to her, the imposter! Not that it was a vast fortune, but it was certainly enough to keep the wolf from the door and to give her choices. This was yet another reason for her to be eternally grateful to her lovely husband.
She had looked around the room and knew that the Bea of her youth would have shouted to the assembled, 'Do you know what? I'd really rather be alone, and Peter didn't like half of you anyway. Please, make your way home via the nearest exit and when you have gone, I shall drink wine and dance in my bare feet until I fall asleep!' But this wasn't the Bea of her youth; she was in her fifties and had learnt that sometimes it was best to observe the 'least said, soonest mended' rule. That was precisely how she got through the following hour of further platitudes about how time would heal all of her wounds. She knew from bitter experience that this was a lie. Thirty-five years on and her pulse still quickened as she remembered clinging to her beloved with her bare hands, begging, pleading not to be left alone. Time had not healed her wounds; it had merely placed a thin veneer of anaesthesia over them that dulled the pain, making them easier to live with.
Bea shook her head to clear the memory and lifted the cup of lemony tea to her lips as she wandered over to the sofa. Her wrist gave a familiar jangle. Twelve slim silver bracelets sat haphazardly on her left arm, each one bought by Peter for a particular birthday or anniversary; each one engraved on the inside with a declaration of love or a funny insight. The one he'd given her on her fiftieth birthday read: 'You are now officially old! Welcome to the club!'
She smiled at the memory of his wonderful humour and wished once again that she could have returned to him the same love that he'd given her. She had been happy with him, he had been a good father to Wyatt, and of course he'd helped her set up the Reservoir Street Kitchen, the café that was her pride and joy. But no matter how much she wished otherwise, her feelings for him were measured, a pale simulacrum of the way she had felt about her first love, her hand inside his as they glided over the wooden deck, the full moon providing the most perfect backdrop as her heart jumped and her foot tapped in time to the music, that night she'd wished would never end. Bea lightly stroked the dark green silk cushion, letting the fingers of her free hand linger on the fabric.
After showering and blow-drying her thick grey hair into its voluminous waves and fastening it into a haphazard knot with a barrette, she applied her scarlet lip stain and brushed a couple of coats of mascara onto her long lashes. As she accessorised her olive pedal pushers with a sleeveless tunic and chunky bone-coloured beads that hung around her neck in three strands, she reminded herself how very lucky she had been. If it hadn't been for Peter, life could have turned out very differently indeed. She then slipped her feet into her trademark petrol-blue Converse and pushed the memory of her dream to the very back of her mind.
Before going downstairs to open up the café, she glanced at the photo on the wall and spoke the same words out into the bright blue morning that she had for the past 364 days.
'I'm sorry, Peter. I'm sorry.'CHAPTER 2
'Ah, Mr Giraldi. How are you today?' She waved from in front of the grand reclaimed bookshelf, where she was adjusting a miniature wooden rocking horse to sit just so, framed by battered copies of Little Women and Moby Dick, among others. She groomed the little horse with her fingertips, trying to make the most of his sparse mane and worn paintwork.
'Good, thank you, Bea, apart from the fact there is someone sitting at my table!' He removed the straw trilby that offered shade from the hot Sydney sun and lifted his walking cane, aiming it at the two tourists sitting beneath the bi-fold window. On sunny days the window was opened so that you were effectively dining al fresco, free to watch the goings-on of Surry Hills, one of the most vibrant of Sydney's inner-city suburbs. The couple, oblivious to their blunder, chattered and sipped at iced spiced chai latte. 'How long will they be? Have they asked for the bill yet?' he shouted in their direction.
'Not sure, but why don't you come take a seat over here? We can catch up and then you can always move later,' Bea suggested.
She hoped the enthusiastic couple, she English and he American, who had oohed and aahed as they walked into the Reservoir Street Kitchen for the first time, hadn't heard. 'We love delis and cafés,' the charming red-headed man had explained. 'We have history – it's where I met Megan, my wife.' He'd smiled. 'Shut up, Edd! No one cares how we met!' The woman had blushed and beamed. They were clearly very much in love.
'What's that you've found, more junk?' Mr Giraldi enquired, nodding at the rocking horse as he placed his hat on one of the other bleached and scrubbed wooden tables and took a seat.
The horse was the latest addition to the quirky decor, with Bea's objets d'art sitting in stark contrast to the polished cement floors, exposed steel joists and tempered glass of the premises. In its previous life the building on Reservoir Street had been a textile factory and Bea and Peter had been way ahead of their time in using the harsh industrial materials of the place to their advantage. Rather than dispose of the rusted pulleys that were strung like mini cable-cars across the high ceiling, or try to disguise the weathered brick and replace the chipped green enamelled lights that hung in low clusters, they had simply incorporated them into the design. One critic had described their new venture as 'wonderfully bohemian, daring and eclectic', which had made them chuckle over a bottle of red – they'd thought they were merely being thrifty! That had been twenty years ago.
Bea laughed. 'I keep telling you, Mr Giraldi: firstly, these things are not junk, they are pre-loved. And secondly, I don't find them, they find me. I'm like a magnet for these objects, and I think they make the place more beautiful, don't you?'
He simply tutted noncommittally as she ran her eyes over the unusual mix of items that sat on the industrial shelving units. The old European bakers' racks had been shipped over years ago – some still had blobs of flour encrusted on them, as hard as rock; the rusty wheels on each corner must have propelled them across tiled bakery floors, transporting rustic breads and baked goods of the sort that she would almost certainly be happy to serve today. There was an antique sewing machine on an ornate scrolled-iron trestle, nestled in a corner. Defunct brass fire extinguishers were used as doorstops and the vast, high walls were graced with everything from a stuffed kudu head to a child's chair covered in cartoon decoupage.
She smiled; each and every one of those things held a special memory or put her in mind of a happy time. 'Take these photos, for example.' She pointed at a wall, bare brick like two of the others, that held clusters of black and white vintage photographs in mismatched frames. They included a Victorian gentleman in a rather dandy hat, and a blurred shot of shoeless children gathered on the step of a building not five minutes from where she now stood; ironically, the price tag for that step and the house behind it was now in the millions. 'All of these pictures I have found on my wanderings, either in junk shops or on antiques stalls.'
'Same thing,' Mr Giraldi interjected.
Bea gave her little sideways nod. 'That's as maybe, but they amount to so many happy days spent wandering streets, strolling in the sunshine or sheltering from the rain. And the point is I salvage them, the photographs that nobody wants. These people who were someone's father, someone's daughter. I can't bear to think of them discarded, lost, these people who had lives, who mattered.'
Excerpted from The Christmas Cafe by Amanda Prowse. Copyright © 2015 Amanda Prowse. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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