I pick the phone up on the second ring. It’s one of those ancient old-school beasts, from the eighties or something. Big and chunky with rotary dial and a ridiculous length of extension cord, which I had a habit of stumbling over, usually while carrying a full tray of coffees.
‘Hello, the Twisted Twig, Rose speaking.’
‘Bloody hell, Rose don’t sound so enthusiastic.’
‘Screw you Olli, you don’t know what I’m dealing with.’ Crap, did I just say that out loud?
‘If it’s that bad you can always come home you know.’ His tone is cajoling and I am reminded of the way that Twiggy looks pleading up at me with her big yellow eyes and tries to lure me into giving her a second helping of cat food, even when I know Thaneth has already fed her.
A deep sigh escapes me, and I sag against the counter suddenly exhausted.
‘Ollie, we’ve been through this, even if I did come home... I wouldn’t be coming home to you.’
My voice comes out a whisper. My throat feels like it’s contracting and my body is suddenly aching like I have the flu. I want to keep talking, tell him that he shouldn’t keep calling, instead I just hold the heavy weight of the receiver to my ear. The silence stretches out between us, a fine strand of spider web connecting us together despite the distance, despite everything….
‘I guess I’m just having trouble getting it though my head that it’s really over this time. You know I miss you Rose.’
A jolt of anger courses through me. If you hadn’t done what you did then we would have still been happy together. Now you're playing on my feelings and making me feel like crap instead of just letting me move on.
‘Sorry Ollie, I’ve got to go, a customer has just come in.’ I’m so pathetic, I have to make up excuses to get off the phone.
‘Oh okay then, um Rose?’
‘.... never mind.’
I slam down the receiver.
My boss, my great writing idol is asleep in one of the old brown leather armchairs by the open fire. Her cloud of grey curls sticks up a little over the top of the chair. Every now and then she mumbles a little or snorts in her sleep. I can’t see from here but I’d be willing to bet my signed copy of Willows Wish, that Twiggy is curled up asleep on her lap.
Bitter gale force winds and battering rain has kept even the regulars away today, so there is no harm in closing up early.
Reaching behind me I undo the knot in the back of my apron, wincing in pain as some of my hair has gotten caught up in it. I end up holding a collection of long strands, which I throw into the bin. Maybe I should cut it really short and dye it platinum blonde, finally say goodbye to the mousy colour I’ve always considered boring. Despite myself I imagine Ollie's reaction to seeing me with short hair. I feel sad and angry rather than triumphant.
Slipping the apron strap off over my head, I hang it on one of the tree branch wall hooks. Gazing at it for a moment, I remember the day that Alison gave it to me. I’d been ecstatic then, even the crap with Olli couldn’t ruin my happiness. Finally I was one of the select few who had been offered a place at the two thousand and sixteen Tanith Lancer writers retreat. Having the opportunity to meet my writing muse and learn from her was a dream come true. The opportunity to spend three weeks in the adorable little township of Chesterwick -about two and a half hours drive out of the city Melbourne- could not have come at better time. Back then I’d been oblivious to state of my favorite authors health issues.
A gust of wind rattles the front door, like a ghost who has lost their house keys. The edges of the front awning flap manically. I can hear creepy howling sounds even over the Stevie Nicks album that Tanith has perpetually playing in the background. I long to turn Stevie off, the first time that Tanith had fallen asleep in front of the fireplace I’d done just that, she had woken up instantly and thrown a frightening tantrum. It was so traumatic for all involved that I’d never risk it again.
Locking the front door, I turn the open sign around and stare through the glass into the rain drenched street. The sky is so overcast that it feels much later than it is. I flick the switch beside the door frame, turning the lights on along the front of the building. It does little to push back the darkness.
The gutter across the way has overflowed and a deep puddle has formed almost to the center of the road. Dark fingers of water seem to slowly reach towards me as I watch, transfixed. Goosebumps form on my arms despite the warmth of the fire lit room.
Better check the locks a second time just to sure.
Suddenly a pale face appears on the other side of gass. Instinctively I let out a high pitched scream and drop the keys.
‘Willow, what’s going on is the spider back?’ Great, I’ve woken Tanith.
‘It’s Okay Tanith, it’s just me Rose, there is a lady at door, she gave me a fright that’s all.’
As I bend down to retrieve my keys Twiggy appears and rubs up against my leg, decorating my purple tights with her hairs. Straightening, I notice that the woman is smiling apologetically. I can feel my cheeks flame. It takes several unsteady attempts for me to get the key in the lock.
How could she have materialised out of nowhere like that? I was looking out on the empty main street, I should have seen her coming.
Finally I get the key in and open the door.
‘Sorry to give you a fright I know you were locking up, but I’ve come a long way and I was wondering if would still be possible to get a hot drink, this weather is just abysmal.’ Her accent is upper class English.
‘You’re in luck I haven’t turned the coffee machine off yet.’
It’s been such a dead day that I don’t see how I can turn away a paying customer, even if I I’d like to.
I open the door and she steps in, bringing a blast of cold air with her.
‘Rose, Rose what’s going on is everything alright?’
‘Yes Tanith everything is fine I’m just with a customer. I’m just going to make her a drink would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Yes dear that would be lovely.’ The thought of bringing her tea has me flashing back to this morning. I had just put her cup on the coffee table when she had leaned forward and taken my hands in hers. She had said “My darling Rose you really have been a Godsend these past few weeks, I want you to know how much I have appreciated having you here and James has too, although he might not say it. I’m not going to be around forever and I want you to promise that you’ll take care of James and the twisted twig for me when I’m gone.” I’d just stood there with my mouth open too shocked to know what to say, all I could do was to shake my head.
Today had been emotionally exhausting, all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed, but now I had this customer to deal with.
Looking at her I realize that the woman's face is familiar, I rack my brain but I can’t think where I have seen her before, since she isn't a regular I figure I had better give her the warning talk just incase.
‘That’s the manager over there,’ I tell her quietly, ‘her memory is impaired, so she sometimes get’s a little confused.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘What can I get you to drink? A pot of earl grey would be lovely thank you.’
‘Willow, Willow, oh my darling sister, I always knew one day you would come back and see me.’ Tanith rushes forward and embraces the women, while I watch in red-faced shock. To my relief the stranger seems to take Taniths hug well enough and doesn’t freak out. Tanith was having a particularly bad day.
‘Look Rose, it’s Willow, can you believe it?’
‘Um, no.’ I shake my head, giving what I hope is an apologetic smile to the customer. Should I play along with this or should I try to convince Tanith that this woman isn’t her sister? Tanith looks happy and the women seems comfortable with her. I hurry off to get the drinks, not wanting to leave them alone too long. Tanith takes the women by the hand and leads her over to the couch by the fire.
Setting the tea things on the tray I notice that they seem to be happily engaged in conversation. I make a large pot, knowing that Tanith will want to serve the tea. I slip a few pistachio biscotti onto a vintage plate and take the tray over to them.
‘Thank you Rose, would you mind popping out to the office and bringing my photo albums Willow would like to see them.’ I look at the women feeling doubtful, but she just smiles and gives me a tiny nod of consent. I browse through the book shelves that line the walls of the small room and quickly locate the stack of old albums. Entering the cafe to the warm sound of Taniths laughter. It seems she is getting along well with the women.
I place the albums on the table.
‘Why don’t you join us Rose.’
‘Ah, I’d love to but I’m just going to unload the dishwasher first, I’ll leave you two to catch up.’ I’m just putting the last of the cutlery away when the dinosaur rings again. Please don’t let it be Ollie again.
‘Hello the twisted twig Rose speaking.’ I attempt to make my voice seem cheerful.
‘Hi Rose, It’s James how you holding up?’ The sound of the familiar husky voice sends a pleasant little tingle through me.
‘I’m good, but the place has pretty much been empy today with this nasty weather.’ Glancing across the room I notice that Tanith and the blond women are sitting with their heads together looking through the photos looking like close companions. Picking up the phone I retreat into the relative privacy of the little office.
‘I expected as much, infact that was partly why I was calling, I wanted to remind you that it’s alright if you want to close up early.’
‘Thanks. I was planning on doing that, but then as I was locking up this woman appeared at the door and frightened the crap out of me. I screamed and woke your mum up, she had fallen asleep in front of the fire again. Tanith thought the women was Willow come back for a visit.’
‘Really?’ I can here the concern in his voice and I feel guilty for telling him.
‘The women was fine about it, I warned her about Taniths memory and the two of them have been happy chatting and looking through the family albums.’
‘It just really worries me that mum seems to be getting worse so suddenly. I should be there with her and not dumping so much on your shoulders.’ Again I am reminded of my strange conversation with Tanith this morning. I decide not to mention it.
‘Honestly it’s fine you know I adore your mum and your meeting with your editor was important, speaking of which, how did it go today.’
‘Much better than expected actually.’
‘See I told you were worried about nothing.’
‘Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight and I’ll tell you all about it then.’ There is eagerness in his voice despite his effort to sound casual.’
‘Sure I’d love to.’
I replace the phone on the counter and am so caught up in my own thoughts that it takes me a moment to realize that something is different, then it dawns on me that I can't hear any talking. From behind the counter I notice that the couch is empty. The photo albums are piled on the coffee table next to the tea things and the biscotti is untouched on the tray. I spot the familiar tuft of curls peeking up above the chair turned towards the open fire.
‘The lady left did she? That was James on the phone he said his meeting with Annabelle went well. He’s invited me to have dinner with him tonight.’ I direct my voice towards Taniths chair as I begin loading the tea things onto the tray. She must have fallen asleep again.
I take the tray to the kitchen. Singing along quietly with Stevie as I go through the ritual of closing up for the second time that day. I gather up the photo albums and return them to the office. Twiggy meows at the back door, I unlock it and let her into the little enclosed yard. It’s raining steadily outside, water cascading noisily down the edges of the gutters and collecting into little sandy streams in the yard. Twiggy dashes though the rain and disappears into the little out building where her litter tray is kept. I grab our coats and my umbrella, slipping mine on as I wait. Putting my hand into my coat pocket, I fiddle with my keys while I watch for the cat.
‘Hurry up Tiggy I want to home.’ At last she sprints across the yard and slips through the door.
She attempts to dry her wet fur on the bottom of my coat and almost trips me up as I make my way through the sleeping cafe to Taniths chair where she dozes by the fire.
She has fallen asleep with one of the photo albums spread out on her lap.
‘Tanith, wake up it’s time to go.’
My hand rushes to cover my mouth, the floor becomes an elevator plummeting me to the depths of the earth. I realize I have taken a step back when I trip on twiggy. She lets out a startled wail and streaks away. I stumble against the coffee table hitting my leg hard. The pain registers in my overwhelmed brain even though there is only room for one profound all consuming thought, TANITH IS DEAD. The image of her sitting in her chair, eyes open staring glassily into oblivion, body frozen, has burned itself into my brain. Scooping Twiggy up I nestle my face into her soft fur and retreat to the back office. It’s cold in here. I put twiggy down on the chair and switch on the tiny electric heater. I find myself just standing there listening to the noisy fan, feeling the useless heat against my shins eyes fixed on the red power on light.
In my mind I hear Taniths voice as clearly as if she was in the room with me. Welcome to the Twisted Twig I named it after my sister Willow, it was a little joke between us. I’d smiled at her words, warmed by the brightness of her smile. I’d known all about her sister of course, how she had disappeared when she was nine and Tanith was ten. It was common knowledge that Taniths best selling novel Willows Wish had been inspired by her sister's disappearance, it detailed her sisters adventures in a magical realm that she had been transported to.
Whenever Tanith had been asked if writing the novel had been a sort of therapy for her. A way of coping with her sister's loss Tanith had always given odd answers as if she actually believed her story to be true.
Inexplicably my eyes are drawn to a photograph on the desk. It can’t be. I lift the frame up to get a better look, for a moment I’d mistaken the women in the shot for the customer who had so recently sat talking and laughing with Tanith. Looking closer I could see that the women in the photo had a long fringe, a slightly smaller mouth and a pointer chin, still the resemblance was striking. It was the same portrait of a twenty something Tanith which appeared on the back inside cover of Willows Wish. I could feel the tears building up behind my eyes. I took a deep breath and tried to steady myself, I some difficult phone calls to make.