In honour of ANZAC Day here in Australia, I’m sharing a scene from my latest Tarrin’s Bay novel APRIL’S GLOW, about a reclusive ex-soldier who moves into the house next door to April, a bubbly but troubled woman who helps to bring him out of his shell, and in doing so, helps her to face her own past.
A man in an Akubra hat met her at the rocky lookout, along with a few other people who were setting up some of the displays and seating for the service. She was instructed on where to bring the candles and he gave her a rundown of the proceedings. The sun was low and glary, and the strong breeze pushed around them like an annoyingly overconfident sales person. As he spoke about a friend of a friend’s grandfather’s time in the war, the contrast to where they now stood was so strong she felt unworthy of being there. In this beautiful place, this safe town, this beautiful natural landscape.
‘We’re lucky, eh?’ he said, glancing around the horizon where the deep blue of the ocean merged with the sky.
He eyed her leg, the ankle of her prosthesis visible under the hem of her long skirt. ‘How long’s it been?’ He gestured downwards.
‘Two and a half years.’
‘Not an ex-soldier, are you?’ He raised his eyebrows.
She chuckled. ‘Me? I wouldn’t cut it as a soldier. No, it was a car accident.’
‘Sorry to hear, love. Guess you’ve got to count your blessings.’
She’d heard that and its variations many times after that awful day, when the reality of being an amputee, among other trauma, had driven her deep into depression.
‘At least you survived.’
‘At least it was only below the knee.’
‘At least it wasn’t your right arm.’
And she knew they were thinking: ‘At least you weren’t paralysed from the neck down like Kyle.’
Kyle. He was the unlucky one. What if she had been sitting in his seat in the car? She shuddered to think of the possibility. He would have been her husband by now. But a drunk driver had changed that for them. And if she hadn’t been adjusting the volume on the car CD player and singing along, maybe she would have been able to react faster to the car coming towards their side who’d run a red light. Maybe less damage would have occurred had she been able to brake sooner, or swerve more sharply. Maybe then the impact would have been one inch further away from Kyle’s spinal cord.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
She would have stayed with him. She’d committed to being his fiancée and future wife. But his family said no, and once he was able to communicate clearly, he’d said no too. He’d wanted her as his wife, not his full-time carer. Maybe if he’d been a paraplegic, but quadriplegic? She’d known it would be incredibly difficult, especially with her own injury to recover from, but the accident hadn’t killed her love for him. Though he survived, she hadn’t only lost her leg that day, but her man. Her future. Life had dealt her a new one, and she was still figuring it out.
‘I have a lot to be thankful for,’ April said to the man, and before he could ask any more questions, she thanked him for his time and confirmed she’d arrive early to set up the candles.
* * *
The atmosphere the following morning was far removed from what it had been the day before. The sun had not yet splashed the sky with its glow, and the moon over the ocean created an eerie presence. Her candles, most held by the many attendees, and others framing the staged memorial area around the microphone and podium, glimmered in the sporadic breeze, the flames protected by their tall heatproof casing. A universal symbol of hope. Remembrance.
As names of soldiers were called out, and prayers and poems recited, she thought of Zac and wondered what sort of poetry he wrote. She’d never been into poetry, but hearing special words spoken into the dim expanse of Lookout Point, the sound of waves crashing and rolling beneath as their background music, she realised its power, its potential. It was a way to make sense of what had been, give structure to the chaos that had occurred, and immortalise the heroes who had perhaps stood here many years gone by, dreaming of a future they never got to experience.
Yes, she was lucky. She may not have got the future she’d planned, but she had a future.
When the service had ended and the early sun warmed the air and started waking up the town, April glanced down towards the harbour on her left, and saw him. Zac. In the distance, standing alone on one of the piers. Why had he not come up to take part in the service? She walked down the hill. Maybe they’d cross paths on her way back home. But by the time she got to the bottom he was already walking further ahead, going the long way around, towards the beach instead of the town.
Probably best. She would go home and make use of her rare day off while the shop was closed for Anzac Day. He’d go to his place and do his own thing, and they need never be more than courteous but distant neighbours. Later on she’d join some of the locals at the pub for dinner. Her mum wouldn’t be there though, she boycotted pubs. She would catch up with her for lunch tomorrow instead.
After chatting to some locals in Miracle Park on the way home, April arrived back in her street and found Zac planting a small tree in his front garden.
‘Poet and a gardener, huh?’ she said, stopping in front of his house. So much for leaving him to his own devices, her mouth didn’t like to cooperate with her brain. ‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she added, about to walk off.
‘Wait,’ he said.
She looked at his face, his eyes tight and squinting in the morning glare.
‘I’ve got something for you.’
‘Another cloud candle?’ April glanced upwards.
‘No. Something you can actually take with you. Into your house, I mean, not when you die.’
She tilted her head. She didn’t know how to respond to that.
‘Sorry. I’m sure you’ll live a long healthy life. I’m just saying. You know, after our conversation a couple of weeks ago.’
‘That we can’t take material possessions with us when we die, yes. I remember.’
‘It’s inside.’ He brushed soil from his bare hands and walked towards the front door. April followed, but hung about on the porch. A subtle glow caught her eye and she peered into his house, noticing the fireplace. But it wasn’t lit, the candle on the mantle above was. The cinnamon candle.
‘I’m glad the candle is getting put to good use,’ she said. ‘But they look nicer when lit at night.’
Zac wandered to the mantle. ‘I know. But I thought today would be good.’
‘Because of Anzac Day?’
He nodded, and before she knew what she was doing she had stepped into his house without asking permission. ‘Is that you?’ She pointed to a photo of two kids. She recognised the shape of his jaw, even in the youthful roundness of the child’s face. She looked back to the door she’d stepped through. ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t barge in. My legs and my mouth have a mind of their own.’
He chuckled. ‘It’s okay. Yes, that’s me and my friend.’
April’s gaze wandered to the photo next to it. ‘And all grown up. Same friend?’
He nodded. ‘Yep.’
‘You’re a soldier?’ It made sense. His commanding presence and posture. His tattoos, the intensity and seriousness he sometimes had. When he wasn’t chuckling or commenting on how she was ‘amusing to watch’.
‘How long have you been off duty?’
Zac glanced up to the roof. ‘Almost three years now.’
‘Wow. You must have seen a lot. I mean, I don’t need to know, but … is that why my prosthesis didn’t shock you?’
‘I’ve seen much worse.’
‘I can imagine. Although I can’t. Not really. I won’t begin to even … I should stop talking. I’ll stop talking.’ She turned away from his gaze and brushed her hair from her face.
‘It’s okay, April.’
She narrowed her eyes a little. ‘I saw you, at the harbour. You weren’t at the dawn service?’
He shook his head and slid his hands into his pockets. ‘Prefer to honour the men in my own way. And also, it’s …’ He ran his hand across his short hair. ‘Doesn’t matter. Oh, your gift.’ He went to the kitchen.
April furrowed her brow. ‘What is this gift you speak of?’
He held out his hand, a small seashell resting on his palm. ‘Found it when I was walking over the sand dunes. Made me think of you for some reason. I think because it has these little speckles on it, like cinnamon.’
April took the shell and studied it with a smile. Golden brown specks were scattered across it like freckles. And one edge of the shell was broken off. There was also a larger patch of golden brown near the centre, like a birthmark. ‘It’s unique,’ she said. ‘I like it. Thanks.’
‘Don’t thank me, thank Mother Nature.’
‘Okay then. Thanks Mother Nature,’ she spoke loudly in case Mother Nature couldn’t hear her from within the confines of this man-made enclosure.
Maybe the reason why Zac had been distant the past two weeks was because of what today represented, and it triggered memories for him. Painful memories, just like the month of September did for her. ‘Sorry if I’ve been a nosy neighbour, pestering you about what you do and how you pay your bills. I’ll mind my own business now and try to be normal. So, if you need to borrow a cup of sugar anytime, let me know.’ She laughed.
‘I don’t use sugar,’ Zac replied.
‘Oh. Then if you need to borrow a cup of … Sugar substitute? Chia seeds? Or … coffee?’
‘I’ll be sure to remember your offer.’ He grinned, then walked April to the door.
Before stepping off the porch she turned to face him, his eyes grey and tired-looking, like he hadn’t had enough sleep. Which if he’d been up since before dawn like she’d been, he hadn’t. ‘Hey, a few of us will be at the pub tonight for dinner, if you’d like to come?’
Zac took a step back. ‘Um. Thanks. But I’ll pass.’
‘Okay, but if you change your mind, let me know.’
He scratched his head, and his mouth opened like he wanted to say something, but no sound came out.
‘Well, I’ll be off.’
‘April.’ He lightly touched her arm and she glanced down at his hand. He had nice hands.
‘Thanks for the offer. It’s nice of you. But the reason I can’t is, well …’ He nibbled one corner of his lip. ‘It’s a bit embarrassing, really.’ He rubbed the back of his neck.
‘What is?’ she asked. ‘That you don’t want to be seen in such a state of obvious self neglect with your unimpressive physique and unshaven face? And those tattoos, I mean, you look like a badass. People might get scared.’ She nudged him with a wink.
Zac smiled. ‘Yeah, I’ve let myself go. Too many meat pies.’ He patted his belly that clearly received no less than a couple of hundred or more crunches per day. ‘Nah, the thing is, and I haven’t told anyone this, except for … anyway, the thing is, I have a mild case of agoraphobia.’ A slight hint of pink coloured his cheeks. ‘Crowds. I just can’t do them. It’s hard to explain. I need quiet. Not too many people around. A pub, or any similar place, it’s … I’m not quite there yet.’ He lowered his gaze and lifted the edge of his doormat with his foot.
April felt a surge of pity for the guy. Well, not pity so much as sadness. A man like him, in his prime, clearly traumatised by things in his past … of course it was understandable that the war would have affected him in some way. He didn’t appear to have any physical injuries, but maybe he had post-traumatic stress disorder, or maybe the crowds and open spaces just triggered anxiety for some reason.
April touched his arm as he had hers. Somehow, it felt both rough and smooth at the same time. ‘I understand. No problem.’ She offered a small smile. ‘Thanks for telling me.’
She gave a small wave and stepped off the porch, but as per usual, she thought of another thing to say and had to turn around again. ‘You know what? I feel like eating in tonight.’ April put her hands on her hips and surveyed Zac’s front garden. ‘Care to join me?’
Zac’s eyebrows shot up. ‘You’re inviting me over for dinner?’
‘Looks that way. I can pick something up, or find something to whip up.’
He rubbed his chin. ‘The thing is, I’ve already defrosted some chicken for tonight. How about you join me here instead?’
Now April’s eyebrows rose. ‘You’re going to cook for me?’
‘No, you can cook. I’ll just provide the ingredients and kitchen facilities.’
She eyed his unchanged facial expression.
‘I’m kidding,’ he chuckled. ‘You can clean up instead.’
April laughed and warmth spread throughout her cheeks.
‘Seriously, I’ve got it covered.’ He held up his hands. ‘Just come over when the sun goes down.’
‘You’ve got yourself a deal.’ She gave a nod. ‘Would Juliet like Romeo to join her for some gourmet cat pellets?’
Zac laughed, and his Adam’s apple bobbed. ‘I think the cats can sort themselves out for tonight. See you later on.’ He smiled and closed the door.
So much for not bothering to get to know him anymore. The pages of his book of life were starting to open, and she was sure tonight would provide many more answers to the questions that had been forming in her mind. It was time to get to know Zac, for real. Not just chatting over the fence, not the odd, random conversations at his door, but real, proper, dignified conversation over the dinner table. A sense of anticipation fluttered inside. She had been looking forward to dinner at the pub, but this … this she was looking forward to way more than that.
APRIL’S GLOW is available from all online ebook retailers.
Others via the buy now button at Escape Publishing