Rose hears the chattering of lorikeets before realising it is just the dishwasher clinking—cleaning the crescent moons of lipstick from the champagne flutes, the thumbprints of old colleagues, perhaps lovers, from the whisky tumblers. The table is covered with flowers, still wrapped in cellophane, from yesterday’s housewarming. Greeting cards that will never come out again rest in their bright white envelopes on the mantelpiece. Rose has given up on keeping anything but the basics since the day she came home to find the few leftover bricks of her old house too hot to hold, the wheel rims of Max’s Mercedes melted and running in silver strands through the ash of the ridge.
The dishwasher cycle finishes and Rose opens the machine to a wave of steam. Gold-rimmed glasses dangle from the inbuilt racks and rows of china-handled dessertspoons fill the small cutlery basket. Rose picks up one of the floral plates before sliding it back in between the others, sighing as she shuts the dishwasher door again with a tap. She looks out into the front yard, still dotted with empty bottles and red paper plates—some smeared with relish, some curled or folded into neat quarters. Rose had counted more than a hundred people at the party, all coming in through the new pine double-doors holding wrapped gifts—eyebrows held a little too high, lips pressed together in pity. A lot of the visitors, though, had just dropped by quickly—due to obligation, maybe a little curiosity. Rose received three potted fruit trees, a tub of basil and some tiny glass pots of bush tomato seeds. ‘To plant, whenever you’re ready,’ Jill Harris had said, her painted eyelids never quite opening all the way. ‘We all just love the new house, Rosemary, but you need a garden to match.’
The day goes slowly—the sun coming in through the new blinds to cast gold lines across the parquetry. Rose avoids cleaning up by flipping through her piles of home magazines and slowly drinking from a cup of Earl Grey laced with cream liqueur. Sometimes she sees returning birds on these quiet days—a Jackie Winter, families of choughs, a fairy wren—and thinks of telling Max. However, Rose’s own reflection, now unfamiliar, clutters the shiny phone screen enough for her to put the phone back in its place among the unopened bills and letters. Sitting by the empty bookshelves, Rose realises she’s missed some used glasses people have left along the mantelpiece—tucked away behind the cards and the empty wine bottles doubling as vases for cut bottle brush and too-bright geraniums. Later, when she’s in bed, she notices pink pollen caught in the pale hairs of her arms. She tries to sleep to the eerie mopoke mopoke of a single boobook owl, travelling in through the freshly stretched flyscreen doors.
It’s dark when Rose hears the sound of shoes on the new bluestone steps outside. There have been no headlights shining through the seams of her bedroom’s thin cotton curtains, no torchlight swaying across the recently gravelled driveway. The new terrier, wagging its short tail and shaking all over, makes tiny excited yelps that send ripples up Rose’s now sinewy back. As she sits up, flinging her bare legs over the side of the bed and flicking on the reading light, there is a faint knock on the door. Rose notices the milky blues and purples of the veins across her shins and thinks of Max—how the backs of his pale hands were similarly coloured, how his knucklebones had begun to poke through more than ever.
‘Hello?’ The voice is low—much younger than the voices Rose is used to now that her sons are overseas, contacting her mostly through short emails and links to photos around the usual times: Christmas, birthdays, Easter and the new year. She pulls some stockings up over her legs, remembering Max saying, in the absent voice he had developed lately, that he’d put out invites to all letterboxes, fronting houses rebuilt and otherwise, along the road: ‘3 pm till late’. Not everyone had known each other before the fire, but they all felt they had something in common now—the day in all its blues at least: the burning eucalyptus oil as they fled and the soft greys of the next morning’s ash. The woollen dress Rose puts on still smells like the store and her bangles, which she forgot to take off earlier, have put deep red creases across her left cheek. As she opens the door she can smell cologne and flowers. A man holds what Rose thinks are tulips, with their yellow cup-shaped blooms and long grey-green stems—but she can’t be sure.
The man looks over Rose’s shoulder at the cellophane of the dining table, now glinting in the porch light. He wears a thickly knitted beanie and a small coppery ring through his left ear that, even now, Rose can tell is unfashionable. As he steps in closer to her she notices that his black linen shirt has faded across the shoulders and that the sleeves are still dark where they have been rolled and hidden from the sun. The man is not as young as he sounds, though still young to Rose—only a few stray white hairs fleck his ginger beard. He shifts his weight before continuing, ‘Sorry I’m late.’ A single car passes the house—clouds of dust lit up in its high beams. Both the man and Rose pause to watch it fade along the ridge, before looking back at one another, their feet on either side of the door strip.
‘It was yesterday, actually,’ Rose answers, trying to recognise the contours of his nose, his cheeks, as belonging to a child she once knew back when her own children were small enough to ride their bikes, bead-wheeled, up and down the still bush-lined gravel roads.
‘Join us for Easter lunch’, at least three separate couples had suggested to Rose during the party. No-one really meant it, though; if Rose were to turn up at any of their places the next Sunday—sandwiches in hand but no Max—there would have been a room full of half nods and thin smiles. Most of them hadn’t even stayed at the party for orange cake and tawny port anyway—drinking their lunchtime Limonatas quickly and heading home to the Sunday papers, to coffee and dry biscuits before bed within their own surviving walls.
There were even two bottles of Glen Fiddich for Max that day—Rose’s own neighbours still unaware of the missing hatchback, the shoebox beside the front door filled only with women’s canvas slip-ons. Annabelle Elliott, from the weatherboard house down on Steels Creek Road, was the only one who had picked up that something had changed. She watched Max’s perfectly square face doing the niceties a little too eagerly at the party—his mouth carefully held so as not to suggest things were anything other than normal. ‘So tell me about it,’ she said to Rose, her voice, as always, seeming too deep to have come from her small chest, buttoned up with an equally tiny jacket, embroidered with ochre elephants and outlines of trees.
‘He saw things I didn’t,’ Rose said, her hands neatly cupped in her silky lap and her moonstone earrings glowing in the sun coming through the fernery skylight, ‘so I have to understand.’ Rose spoke of the occasional night she spent in Ivanhoe then—listening to the neighbours talk through their days with one another in the shared courtyard below Max’s new bedroom window. Max went to bed early those nights, like he always did these days—Rose sliding in beside him like she did when they’d first met. His breath would smell like toothpaste though, like a new spearmint mouthwash he hadn’t used the whole time Rose had known him. There was no Scotch in his freshly painted cupboards now, no sherry collection in the cherry wood cabinet any more. Lying there, watching the red glow of the digital clock change through the hours, Rose felt sad about things like the cabinet, which had long disappeared on that Saturday, soon after the prickly tea-tree lit up like crumbled fire brick across the ridge. Rose would listen to her husband’s breathing those nights, sounding almost as strange as the new bed felt beneath her.
‘Japanese magnolias,’ the man says, before reaching down to pat the terrier that is sniffing the white-worn knees of his loose blue jeans. Rose nods, immediately recognising the rush of uncertainty through her middle—a feeling long unfelt. She breathes in though, ignoring it and reaching for the hallway lights, their new shades casting patterns of tiny leaves across the freshly painted walls.
‘Won’t be able to move for flowers soon,’ Rose smiles, offering to take the paper-wrapped bunch from the man’s grip, ‘but thank you.’
‘Not such a bad thing, I guess,’ he says, looking down as he uses the tip of his left boot to pry off the other. His jeans are tucked into thick navy explorer socks, with too much room around the toe. He looks back up at Rose. ‘Sebastian, anyway, from up near Tuan’s Track.’ Rose is conscious of the tightness of wool blend across her chest, of her own bare feet beneath her, as she meets his hand in the middle—his shake firm and his skin a little too soft. She runs through the places she knows up that way—the Nicholsons’, the Owens’ and the little log cabin run by the woman who only wore orange clothes. The man picks up a gift bottle of champagne, wrapped in pink dotty paper, from the sideboard by the door. ‘Bubbly and flowers but you probably just want your old stuff back, hey?’
‘The little things would be nice,’ Rose agrees and the man nods, walking past her and pulling out a chair from the still-clothed and cluttered table, facing it towards the floor-to-ceiling windows that are displaying the night lights of the valley below.
‘That went better than I thought,’ Max said, his face finally free from its forced smile and his shoulders taking back their curve. The other guests had left and the sun had begun to set behind the pipe-cleaner trees that had seemed to pop up across the ridge. The two were sitting on the bluestone steps, scuffed now by other people’s shoes and scattered with dropped plastic cutlery, when Max passed Rose the round-cornered photograph—his wrists seeming thinner than ever. ‘Eva posted it,’ he added and Rose thought of Max’s sister, of her short lavender hair and the cluttered shelves of her bungalow over in Healesville, close enough to the strawberry farms to smell the dimethoate spray. She had always felt uncomfortable sitting in Eva’s place, with cups of ginger tea that never seemed to end, the cracked ceiling plaster feeling like it would drop around her shoulders any moment. And Rose barely recognised herself, or Max, in the photograph—standing in front of the stained-glass doors of their old place, their hair still coloured and their halfway smiles confident.
‘You look all right there, Maxwell,’ Rose joked, looking over to the man who was still listed as her husband, though the certificate had burnt inside the beige filing cabinet it had been stored in—one of the few things that retained a semi-recognisable shape through the fire. Max’s lips tightened again—looking, to Rose, as hard and cold as the bluestone below them.
‘Come live with me, Rosey. There’s nothing left for you here.’
The man looks smaller to Rose from behind as they both look out the pearly double-glazed windows—at the older, still-standing gums that are silhouetted by the moon. The trees have yet to sprout their last attempts at regrowth, before collapsing into the now thickly carpeted bush floor. ‘I do miss my old glassware, my good dinner set too,’ Rose says, going to the dishwasher and pulling out two of the gold-rimmed champagne flutes, now entirely dry. She realises it’s not even that late, by the still travelling truck lights of the valley and the small lit-up runway down on the way to Lilydale.
‘Champagne or champagne?’ Rose asks, taking the dotted bottle from where the man put it, perched on the edge of the dull granite bench. The glasses touch, sending out a small ring from between Rose’s fingers, loud enough for the terrier to stand up from its crouched spot under the new coffee table.
‘Worst in history,’ the man says, focusing on the glasses, now full, in Rose’s ring-free hands, ‘bet it looked pretty awful, coming across the pines.’ And Rose pauses on the redwood parquetry as the man continues—talking of the old plantation that ran onto Wallace Road and the pine needles that carpeted the hectares between the ridge and gully. Something in his voice sounds familiar to Rose, the way it rises in excited peaks that get closer together before petering out. ‘You know it was ten metres taller than those gums you see out there?’ he asks, nodding out towards the view and reaching towards Rose for a glass. ‘Hard to believe something that big can just begin with a spark.’
The man drinks half of his champagne in one mouthful as Rose takes a small sip, her bare lips pressed against the glass rim.