Campbell slammed the door of his trusty rusty Ute, not bothering to lock it.
Not because he wouldn’t have cared if it was pinched. Or because the
area had an unparalleled neighbourhood watch program. But because it
didn’t need to.
The good people
of Portsea were more likely to make a steal as doctors or lawyers or
footballers than to steal a dilapidated tradesman’s car. For Portsea was
the land of high brushwood fences and vast homes with purely ornamental
tennis courts and architecturally designed swimming pools posturing
magnificently on the tip of the Mornington Peninsula.
Tom hitched his
tool belt higher on his hips, threw a pink pillowcase full of old rags over
his shoulder, and strode through one such brushwood gate graced with the
word ‘Belvedere’ burnt into a lump of moss covered wood.
From the top of
the dipping dirt driveway he caught glimpses of white wood and a slate grey
tiled roof which was not an unusual combination for a house by the beach.
What was unusual was that unlike other properties in Portsea, Belvedere
wasn’t manicured to within an inch of its life. In fact it wasn’t manicured
As the foliage
cleared he saw a house that looked like it had been built over fifty years
by half a dozen architects with incompatible visions. At least five levels
ambled down the sloping hill towards the cliff’s edge. Most of the original
pale green shutters were closed to the morning light, and by the deep orange
rust on their hinges he guessed many hadn’t been opened in months. The rest
was hidden behind what looked to be years of neglected foliage. If the
local council had any idea that this place was in such disrepair they’d be
up here in a Sorrento second waving their ordinances on beautification and
escalating land value.
Many of the
homes in Portsea were empty most of the year and needed nothing more than
basic upkeep by overpaid full-time gardeners. As a hire-a-handyman he only
did odd jobs. But this place... Already he could see it could do with a
lick of paint. And the garden could do with some tender love and care, or a
backhoe. It was a renovator’s dream. And Tom would be sure to tell Lady
Bryce all of that once he had a damn clue what he was doing there in the
Tom smiled to
himself. Lady Bryce. That’s what the Barclay sisters, the doyennes
of Portsea who ran the local haberdashery, had labelled her because she
hadn’t yet deigned to frequent their fine establishment.
He’d never met
her either, though he had spied her driving down the Sorrento main street in
her big black Jeep, large sunglasses and ponytail, eyes ahead, mouth in a
determined straight line, and fingers clamped to the steering wheel as
though for dear life. And when weighing up working for a woman who at first
glance seemed pretty high strung against the time it would take away from
his fishing he had considered declining politely. But, as usual, when it
came to the crunch, he hadn’t had it in him to say no.
picture his cousin Alex laughing at him even considering turning down
a damsel in distress, for Alex seemed to think Tom had some sort of knight
in shining armour complex. Tom thought Alex ought to mind his own beeswax.
He ducked out
of the way of a low hanging vine, watched his step for fear of turning an
ankle, and slowed as a magnificent ten-foot-high wood-carved double front
door loomed amidst a shower of hanging ferns. The right door was ajar, but
guarded by a sizeable old red-brown hound with a great big smiley-face charm
with the word ‘Smiley’ written upon it hanging off his thick collar.
The dog lifted
its weary head and blinked at him, its floppy ears and sad expression not
changing a lick to show that he felt any pleasure at the unexpected company.
down and gave the poor old soul a rub on the head. ‘Is the lady of the house
crashing noise followed by a seriously unladylike spray of words told
Tom that the lady of the house certainly was about.
called out, but he was met with silence as sudden as the previous verbal
spray had been. Not finding any evidence of a doorbell, he stepped over the
melancholic guard dog, and walked further inside the entrance to find
himself face to face with a square stain on the wall, evidence that once
upon a time a picture had hung there, a garden bench that had a mildewed
look about it as though it had been relegated from outside covered in a pile
of unopened mail, and yet another fern living its sad bedraggled life in a
bright new ceramic pot.
word, this one softer than the last, caught his hearing and he followed it
like a beacon to find himself in a huge main room with sweeping wooden
floors in need of a good polish, lit bright by a series of uncurtained
ceiling to floor French doors through which he had a thicket-shrouded view
of the sun glinting off glorious Port Phillip Bay.
Images piled up
in his mind of what he could do with this place if given half a chance. And
the whole summer, and an open cheque book, and his old team at his side, and
a time machine to take him back ten years... He shook his head to clear
away the wool gathering within.
The room he was
in was empty. No furniture. No pictures on the walls. Nothing. Well,
nothing bar a twisting cream telephone cord snaking across the middle of the
room to the far wall where a large grey drop cloth, buckets of paint,
several flat square structures draped in fabric, a rickety old table which
held numerous jars of coloured water and different sized paintbrushes, and
an easel with a three-by-four foot canvas slathered in various shades of
And in front of
it all wearing no shoes, paint-spattered jeans, a t-shirt that might have at
one time been white, and a navy bandana covering most of her biscuit blonde
hair was the lady in question.
Tom cleared his
throat and called out, ‘Ms Bryce?’
She spun on her
heel with such speed paint from her brush splattered across the all-blue
Tom winced. It
was red paint.
she blurted in a toned down version of the language from earlier. Her voice
was husky, her high cheekbones pink, and her pale grey eyes aglow.
Well what do
Tom thought. My lucky day. For Lady Bryce was a knockout. He
wished his cousin Alex was there with him now so he could poke him hard in
the side and tell him, this is why you never say no to a damsel in
‘Who the hell
are you?’ the lady asked, seemingly not nearly as impressed with him. But
the day was young. ‘And what are you doing in my house?’
thought it pretty obvious who he was considering the family of tools
swinging low on his hips. But the lady looked like she knew how to wield
that paintbrush of hers as a lethal weapon so he answered her query.
Campbell, your friendly neighbourhood handyman,’ he said, deciding to pull
out all the stops in the hopes she wouldn’t use that thing as a javelin. He
smiled the smile that had got him out of trouble on any number of occasions,
and opened his arms wide to show he was not a threat in any way shape or
form. ‘You called a few days ago, asking if I could come around today to
blinked. Several times in quick succession. Long eyelashes swooping
against her flushed cheeks. Unfairly long eyelashes, he thought, especially
for a woman who continued to send off such fierce keep away vibes. Then her
eyes scooted down to rest on his tools.
his toes in his boots to stop himself from shuffling under her acute gaze.
said suddenly, punctuating the sharp word by pointing her skinny paintbrush
And dammit if
he didn’t actually flinch!
Tom took a slow
deep breath. He’d let those crazy old Barclay sisters get inside his head
so much that he’d actually begun to believe this poor woman could be some
kind of nut job, simply because she hadn’t found the need for haberdashery,
whatever haberdashery might be.
So far nothing
worse had happened than red splatters on her picture. So far she seemed
merely antisocial at worst. And at best? Unimpressed by him in
particular. Lucky him.
The handyman,’ she repeated. ‘Okay.’ She unconsciously twirled the
offensive paintbrush in her fingers like a cheerleader’s baton before
turning back to her worktable, choosing a water pot at random, and swooshing
the brush in the dirty liquid.
briefly at her big blue painting, saw the red splatters, and swore again.
It seemed she wasn’t the type to pull her punches because she had company.
Tom felt his
cheek tugging into a smile. If the Barclay sisters knew her penchant for
French he was quite sure they would drop the ‘Lady’ moniker quick smart.
With a shake of
her head, she tiptoed off the drop cloth, scrunching her toes as she wiped
her bare feet at the edge and moved to join him.
She walked with
a sort of natural elegance, like a ballet dancer, heel to toe, long legs
fluid. Her skin had an almost translucent appearance and her clothes hung
off her like she had lost weight quickly and had not found the time or
inclination to put it back on.
She was pretty
tall, too. She must have been near five-ten. Tom drew himself up to his
full six feet and one half inch to compensate. And though her eyes were
grey, when she wasn’t glaring at him they held hints of the same pale blue
found in the clear spring sky behind her.
She pulled the
navy bandana from her hair and used it to wipe her hands, then tucked it
into the back pocket of her jeans. Next she yanked a hair band from her
ponytail and shook the straight length loose until it hung long and
dishevelled half way down her back before gathering it all and folding it
into a messy low bun.
This little act
was merely a habit, he was sure. Her movements were fast, spare, and not
meant to impress. But they impressed him. In fact he found the whole hair
shaking move pretty darned satisfying.
that was the point after all. Maybe that was how she got her kicks -
conning local workmen into her web for a quickie before tumbling them off
the cliff onto the jagged rocks behind her secluded home. Perhaps her
infrequent trips into town at the wheel of her suburban tank were to buy
quicklime and shovels.
She strode past
him and into the massive kitchen, and despite his lively imaginings, Tom
followed. There were no scrawled pictures on the fridge. No post-its or
shopping lists. No flowers on the window ledge. No jars full of mismatched
utensils as were to be found in most of the homes he worked in. According
to the Barclay sisters she’d lived here for months, but the place looked
like she’d just moved in and hadn’t unpacked all her boxes.
he had as much fun seeing inside other people’s homes as the next guy, if
she didn’t have a job for him in the next ten seconds, he was going to walk.
It really was a glorious day outside and the fish would no doubt be
‘What would you
like me to do for you, Ms Bryce?’
She switched on
the kettle, then turned and leaned her backside against the sink and stared
him down, her grey eyes shrewd, distant, and enormous.
said. ‘Firstly I would like you to call me Maggie.’