Summary: Long days are spent swimming in the river with your mates, and trying to catch the eye of the cute boy from out of town. It might be a hundred degrees in the shade, but we'll still wear silly paper hats and eat a big, hot, roast dinner. This is Christmas in Australia, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
A/N: I'm grateful to Astro2009 for all of the betalove—thanks, mate! Love and tinsel to TwiSNfan for pre reading, and for being generally amazing. I'd pull her cracker any day.
This started as a one-shot, but it's blown out a little. This is a mini-fic, so it'll be about half a dozen chapters at the most.
Before we begin: Thongs are footwear commonly known as 'flip-flops' elsewhere in the world. Bathers is a swimsuit. And lemonade, for Aussies, means Sprite or 7-Up. Hope this clears up any confusion ;-)
Weather With You
I tap my foot impatiently beneath the counter as Mrs Biers counts coins in front of me. She buys the same thing every Saturday—surely it's not so hard to have the correct change before she comes in here?
"Oh, blow!" she says, smiling at me with a creased-lip grin. "I lost count. I'll have to start again."
Placing my hands over the coins, I drag them towards me. "Here, let me. It'll only take me a minute."
"Oh, Bella. You're such a nice girl to do that for me." She stretches the fingers on her hand. "My arthritis has been playing up lately."
I count the coins quickly, and give her back the excess. "Here you go. Would you like a bag?"
"Yes, please." She drops the coins in to her purse and puts it back into her handbag. We go through this routine every single Saturday morning. She buys the local paper and a carton of milk. She wraps the milk in the newspaper—to keep it cold on the trip home to Mr Biers—then it all goes into a plastic bag. She'll be responsible for a thousand seal deaths, I'm sure of it. She takes her plastic bag from me. "What are your plans for next year, Bella?"
I force a smile onto my lips. "Oh, I'm not sure. I'm hoping to go to uni in Melbourne, but I won't know more until January. That's when we find out our placements."
"Ah yes, that's right," she says. "My Riley's off in Melbourne. He's studying Engineering."
She's told me this already, but I nod anyway. She's told me this a thousand times. Riley's a bit of a genius, but I'm sure old Mrs Biers doesn't know that the reason her grandson has the nickname "Beersy" is not just because of his last name.
"You have a nice weekend, Mrs Biers."
"You too, Bella. Make sure you wear a hat—I'm sure you're inclined to burn, and it's going to be very hot. In the forties, the weatherman said."
"Thanks, Mrs Biers. See you next week."
"Have a lovely Christmas," she says, and the bell above the door rings as she pulls it open. A rush of hot air comes in, despite the fact that the aircon is running, and I'm relieved when the door closes again, but I pull my ponytail away from the back of my neck and fan myself with my hand.
"Morning, Bella!" booms a voice from somewhere in the shop. I jump a mile.
"Shit, Dale! You gave me a heart attack!"
My boss blows through the shop, his motorcycle helmet still on his head and a pile of papers tucked under his arm. He gives me a wave on his way to the door that leads to the house adjoining the shop. "Cuppa?" he asks.
"Yes, please," I call after him. Another wave tells me he heard me, and I head over to the magazine rack to straighten things up. It's always a mess on a Saturday morning—after the after-school rustling of the plastic covers by the schoolboys in an attempt to try to see a bit of boob, there's crap everywhere.
As I straighten, I mentally go through my Christmas list. I shouldn't be surprised at how quickly it's coming up, but I am. School was done with a month ago, and I've spent most of my days hanging out with my friends or down at the river, but there really isn't much to do in a town as small as Forks Creek.
My best friend, Angela, and I headed to Melbourne a few weeks ago to do some shopping. We were a bit restricted on where we could go because Ange doesn't turn 18 until January, but it was fun to hang out and shop and see the bright lights of the Big Smoke. It also cemented an idea in my head—regardless of what I get into at uni, I can't stay in Forks Creek. I need to get out.
So, as a result of my shopping trip, I have presents sorted for pretty much everyone—Charlie, Renee, Phil, my brother Jamie, my cousin's kids, and Ange. The Clearwater kids are getting iTunes vouchers, because I have no idea what to get eleven and thirteen year olds. I've done a heap of baking, so Charlie's mates at the station are all getting cute little gingerbread houses. I know they have sweet tooths, so that should keep them all happy.
I just need to get something for my lovely neighbour, Liz. Since I moved back to Forks Creek when I was fourteen, Liz has been a mother-figure to me. Don't get me wrong, Renee is and will always be my mum, but after she married Phil when I was ten, and he got a permanent job in the States as a baseball scout, I decided I wanted to stay in Australia with my dad. My school was here, my friends were here, and I was too worried about Charlie being on his own to pick up and move halfway around the world.
"Here you go," says Dale, breaking into my thoughts. He has two cups, and holds one out to me. It's white with the state Lotteries logo on it. It's faded so it's barely recognisable, but it's the same cup I've been using since I started working here three years ago. It's part of my routine.
"Ta," I reply, taking the steaming cup from him. I know it's already approaching the thirties outside and it's not even 10AM yet, but I sip the tea gratefully anyway. "Is everyone up?"
"Nah," he says. "Well, mostly everyone. Emmett's still asleep, the lazy shit."
"Suppose it seems worse when you've been awake since four," I say, smirking over the top of my cup.
"Exactly!" Dale pounds on the counter for emphasis, and his tea almost spills. "See, Bella, you understand me. If Emmett wasn't spending every Friday night running around 'til all hours…"
"So give him the Saturday morning shift," I say, and I laugh as I have to dodge when Dale tries to clip me over the ear. "Hey! Watch the tea!"
"You kids these days. Bloody cheeky." Dale shakes his head as he heads back into the house. "I'm gonna go get some toast. Want some?"
"I'm right, thanks," I reply. "I had brekky before I came in."
Smiling to myself, I grab a feather duster and dust off the shelves. I really like Dale. He's a bit of a polarising character, and people either loathe him or love him. In fact, in this town, most didn't like him at first. He declared when he came here that he was here to do business—that he was here to make money, not friends. Over time, however, he's grown on me, and on most of the people in town.
I straighten the tinsel that's falling down in the front window, and stand the blow-up Santa back on his feet, cursing the little shits that came in here earlier, in their yet-to-be grass-stained cricket whites, and made a mess.
The rest of my shift passes just like any other Saturday morning shift, filled with tradies getting breakfasts of pies from the warmer and Big Ms. There's my other regulars, including old Tom, who never says a word as he bustles in to get his paper, but always calls out a "Thank you!" as he leaves, like he can't possibly go without using his manners. It's weird, but he does it every single week.
I'm in the fridge, restocking the milk, when I hear the doorbell ring. "Just a minute!" I call through the open door. I straighten the last couple of bottles, then rub my hands together as I exit the fridge, shutting the door behind me. "Be right there!"
There's no answer and I can't see anybody at the counter, so I imagine whoever has come in is either somewhere near the back of the shop or has left. I quickly glance at the convex mirrors that are at the end of each aisle, and see the distorted figure of a tall-looking guy dressed in tan shorts, a white t-shirt, and thongs.
I wait patiently, but this guy seems happy browsing in the five short aisles we have here at McCarty's General Store. My stomach rumbles at the same time I check the clock; it's one o'clock, which means knock-off time.
"Thanks for this morning," says Vera quietly, entering the main part of the shop. I smile at her—she's so unlike her husband, quiet and mild, but she has a wicked sense of humour. As opposite as most outsiders would think she and Dale are, they complement each other perfectly.
"You're welcome," I reply, grabbing my bag from under the counter.
"Would you mind working tomorrow afternoon?" she says, opening the till and taking out the cash that is my pay. "I know it's Christmas Eve, but I think it's going to be busy. Shelly from the caravan park said they've got heaps coming in early, so I suspect we'll be run off our feet."
"Sure," I reply, not too keen to work on Christmas Eve, but knowing I need the money. "But can I go at eight? I'm supposed to meet my friends at the Club. I promised."
"No problem," she says, handing me the money. "If it's still busy, I'll make Emmett work later."
"Sounds good." I stuff the cash into my pocket and smirk to myself—I'm sure Emmett would've liked to have gone to the Club himself. Picking up my bag, I head for the door. "I'll see you tomorrow!"
The hot air hits me like a wave as soon as I walk out of the shop, and I know that even though I parked my ute under the shadiest tree in the street, it's still going to be a sauna. My thoughts are confirmed when I open the door, and hot air washes out from inside the cabin.
Pulling down the towel I used to cover the steering wheel, I lay it on the vinyl to protect the back of my legs, and kick off my sneakers, tossing them to the floor below the passenger seat. I wind down all the windows because, although I'm well-off enough to have my own car, I'm poor enough to not own a car with air conditioning. The ute starts first go, and I rumble down the main street, summertime music blaring, and head to the part of town that runs along the river.
The houses here are further apart and, this far out of town, nobody has front fences or footpaths. There's no formed gutters, but the road is soft-edged with large ditches between the road and the front lawns. Jumping the ditches made for great long jump practice when I had to run for the school bus when I was younger. I pass a couple of people I know along the way, so I give them a friendly wave. One of the things about being the Sergeant's daughter is that everybody knows me. It meant that I didn't get into trouble when I was younger, because my dad would always find out. So, while my friends were off trying to sneak into pubs in the next town—underage—I was home. Charlie swears I'll thank him for it one day.
He loosened the reins a bit after I turned 18. Just a bit.
I slow down and turn into my driveway, pulling up behind Dad's Falcon, and slip my feet into my thongs so my feet don't get cut up on our bindi-infested lawn. Although it only took five minutes to get home, I'm still feeling sticky and gross by the time I walk through the sliding door. "Dad!" I call. "I'm home!"
"In the lounge room!" he answers, and I dump my bag and keys on the kitchen table on my way in. Kicking off my thongs, I savour the way my bare feet feel against the cold tiles, and wander into the lounge room. When I walk in, I swear it looks like a bomb went off in Santa's workshop.
"What happened in here?" I ask, kicking paper out of the way to try and make space on the floor.
"I'm trying to wrap these" —he tries to angrily shake a piece of sticky tape off his finger— "bloody presents." He looks at me, and he looks properly ticked off.
"Here," I say, peeling the offending tape off his finger. "Let me."
He huffs, breathing out through his nose the way he does when he's trying to stop himself from saying something he shouldn't. "Thanks."
"Now that I'm doing this," I say, lining up the next present ready for wrapping, "want to sort out some lunch?"
"I can do that," he says, hurrying to his feet, and I smile. "Salad rolls? I stopped in at the bakery on the way home."
"Sounds good." I fold the paper, tucking in the edges so they're neat, and secure it with tape. "Oh, I'm working tomorrow night, so I'll go straight over to the Clearwaters'. Apparently the caravan park is packed, so Vera asked if I could help out."
"Okay," he says. "I might be there a bit late myself. I want to make sure the blokes have it covered. Pickles?"
"Yeah, ta." I set the present I've just wrapped aside, and start on the next one. "I'll head over to Liz's once I've done this and had lunch. I said I'd help her bottle peaches."
"Right-o," Charlie says in acknowledgement. "Lunch is ready."
I smile as I climb to my feet. Despite the fact that I'm all grown up, Charlie still insists on eating in the kitchen. He has a thing about eating on the carpet—it's one of the traits he did keep from Nanna Swan.
When I sit at the table, he sets a plate in front of me, then takes a seat opposite. We eat in silence for a bit, and like always, it's not awkward. I know when he wants to say something because he takes a bite of his roll, clears his throat, then brushes the crumbs from his mustache. "We right to go for Christmas Day?"
"Yeah, all good," I tell him. "I'll put the pav together on Christmas morning, and I'll just need you to carve the ham and the roast for lunch. Everything else is sorted."
"Yep," he says with a firm nod. "That I can do." He stands up. "Good, then." He sets his plate in the sink, then gestures towards the hallway, already headed in that direction. "I've gotta head to the station for a bit. I probably won't be home for tea. I need to put some hours in tonight so I can have Christmas off."
"No worries," I say. "I might see what Ange is up to."
"Right then. Oh, before I forget…" he pauses as he reaches the entrance to the hallway. "Liz will have one extra. She called earlier; her grandson is coming to stay for a bit." And with that, he heads off to get changed.
I clean up my own dishes, then set about wrapping the presents again. Charlie leaves and reminds me to drive safe, which I always do, and I'm home alone. As I finish wrapping Charlie's present, I mentally process what I'll need to do to add one more to our Christmas lunch. I haven't met Liz's grandson, although she talks about him often. Apparently he's into running and cricket, and he finished Year 12 this year, like me. I briefly wonder why Liz didn't mention it earlier.
Charlie's presents are wrapped, then I do my own, adding curled ribbon and cute name tags written in silver Sharpie. Once the rest of the presents are wrapped, I set them under the plastic tree we've had for as long as I can remember. I let my fingers trail across the salt-dough decorations I made when I was in Kinder, the ones that Charlie has kept. Added to that is the paper chain Ange and I made last year, plus there's a few random fishing and footy decorations added in there—Charlie's contribution. He hangs them with pride, and it makes me laugh every single year.
The landline rings, and I know who it'll be before I pick it up. "Hello?"
"Bella, why isn't your pretty face at my kitchen bench?" Liz's voice drifts through the phone.
"Calm down, I'll be there in a few minutes," I tell her teasingly. "I got sucked into wrapping Charlie's presents."
She laughs gently. "Got you again, did he?"
"He does every year," I reply with a grin. "I'll be over in a minute. Need me to bring anything?"
"Hmm…" she says, thinking. "I'm nearly out of sugar. Could you bring some with you?"
"No worries," I tell her, already headed for the pantry. "See you in a sec."
I hang up the phone, grab the sugar and my bag, then set them down again, deciding to change in to my bathers just in case the heat becomes unbearable and I need to jump in the river. After I grab my stuff and a towel, I head out the front door, the one rarely used, but easiest to get to Liz's place. Again, the heat hits me as I head out the front door, and I'm pretty sure my skin is going to burn between my front door and Liz's. The sun's rays prickle my skin, and I move as fast as I can and still be comfortable to get to Liz's. When I reach her door, I don't bother knocking. I just let myself in and shout my arrival. "Liz!"
"In the kitchen, Bella!"
I pat her little poodle, LiLi, who, when seeing it's just me, lifts her head and half-wags her tail. I giggle as her head flops back onto the couch, and I kick off my thongs at the bottom of the stairs and drape my towel over the bannister before taking the stairs two at a time to Liz's upstairs kitchen.
"Mmm," I say as a deliciously sweet aroma surrounds me. "They smell yummy."
"I'm adding stuff to them this year," Liz says, her back to me as she removes a bottle from the big pot on her stove. "Cinnamon and cloves."
"Well it seems like it's working." I take a slice of peach from the bench and pop it into my mouth, loving the sensation of the sticky sweet fruit coating my tongue. "Is this all of them?" I ask, looking at the bowls upon bowls of peaches covering the bench. "Wow, you got heaps this year."
Liz turns to face me, smiling widely, and her clear blue-green eyes twinkle. "I just made sure the birds didn't get them. Cheeky bastards. Drink, love?"
"Ta." I grin, and pull up a stool at the bench. Liz sets a can of lemonade in front of me, and it fizzes a little as I open it. I take a slurp. "Thanks. It's hot out there."
"Only going to get worse," she says. "Said on the news it'll hit the forties on Christmas Day. It's going to be a scorcher."
"Shit," I mutter. "And you'll be right boiling a pudding in that heat?"
"No wuckin' furries," says Liz, going back to her task. "Done it plenty of times before."
Liz's language never surprises me. In fact, when I used to stay with her when Dad worked nights when I was younger, she was the one who taught me dirty jokes. She used to get me to help write letters to all her cousins, and they all traded dirty jokes. There was the Wanker from Warrnambool, the Bitch from Beaufort, and the Arsehole from Albury. Liz has platinum blonde hair and is always tanned—it comes with spending so much time in the sun, baking in coconut oil. Liz is the kind of woman who's eternally youthful. When I was younger, I used to think she was like Marilyn Monroe. She definitely has that air about her.
Once I'm settled on my stool, I pick up a knife to start cutting and pitting. "Dad said your grandson is coming for Christmas lunch."
"He is," she says, wiping her hands on her apron. "He also said you wouldn't mind."
"Course I don't," I say quickly. "There'll be heaps of food."
"And I've heard you're a great cook." A voice behind me makes me jump. I wheel around on the stool, knife still in hand, and the boy standing there puts two hands up in defence. "Whoa, settle down. No need to stab me."
I lower the knife straight away, barely aware of his hands up because I'm too busy noticing his broad, naked chest. Damn, Liz's grandson is built. "Sorry. You scared the shit out of me. I nearly cut my bloody finger off."
He grins, and it's a bit crooked, but he smiles with his eyes. They're the same blue-green as Liz's, and he has natural eyelashes like the ones I've stabbed myself multiple times with a mascara wand to try to get. "Yeah, I'm sorry 'bout that." He holds his hand out to me, and it's large and tanned. "I'm Edward. Grandma's told me heaps about you."
I take his hand, knowing full well that mine are covered in peach juice. "Bella," I say, introducing myself. His hand is warm as he shakes mine, and he screws his face up as our fingers stick tackily together. I glance at our hands. "You deserved that."
Edward rolls his eyes, but he's still smiling. "I know. I did." He gives my hand a final squeeze, then releases it, wandering around the bench to wash his hands in the kitchen sink.
"Shaking hands? You being a grown-up gentleman now, Edward?" asks Liz, grinning as she stuffs peaches into a jar.
Edward kisses her on the cheek as turns on the tap. "Learned from the best, Grandma."
"Bullshit," she says. "I'll never be a grown up."
I laugh at their easy exchange, and slide a pile of sliced peaches across to Liz. "Are you here to make yourself useful, then?" I ask Edward.
"Go on," says Liz. "You use your new gentlemanly ways to help Bella." She gives him a nudge. "And put a shirt on. We've got company."
"'Kay," he says, pulling a can of Coke out of the fridge and coming around to sit next to me. He grabs a white t-shirt that's hanging over the back of a chair at the dining table behind us and pulls it over his head, and I kind of sadly watch that tanned skin on his flat stomach disappear. When he sits down, I swear I can feel the body heat radiating off him, and it sets my face aflame. I take a sip of my lemonade and hope I can blame it on the heat.
"So," he says, a little lazily and a lot sexily, "Grandma said you finished Year 12 this year." He picks up a knife and slices into a peach. Not going to lie, it looks a little awkward. When I nod, he continues. "Where'd you go?"
"Forks Creek High." I continue slicing, all the while watching the knife disaster that's about to happen. "You right with that?"
"Yep," he says, and the peach slips, the knife loudly hitting the chopping board. "Fuck! I mean...sorry, Grandma."
"Not me you should be apologising to," says Liz as she takes the knife from him, her eyes gleaming. "Bella is our guest."
That makes me laugh, because I've never, not once, felt like a guest in Liz's home. But Edward doesn't seem to know that. He starts stuffing peaches into a jar. "Right. Sorry, Bella."
I wave him off. "It's fine, really. I've been to the pub on a Friday night for the meat raffle. Believe me, I've heard worse."
"Speaking of which," says Liz, moving back to the stove and lowering jars into the pot, "apparently Harry won a ham last night. I ran into Sue at the shops this morning. They'll bring it to lunch."
"No way!" I say, placing the last cut peach into a bowl and setting down my knife. I wipe my hands on the tea-towel that's sitting on the bench. "She said she'd bring a ham, and she wins one for free? Lucky buggers."
"I keep telling them they need to buy a lotto ticket," says Liz, taking the bowl.
"Who are these people?" says Edward, sliding a half-full jar to Liz, who slides it back and tells him to keep filling.
"Friends of ours," I say, hopping down from my stool and going to the sink to wash the stickiness from my hands. "Dad and Harry went to school together, and they both ended up back in town. Harry never left, but Dad came back after he met my mum. None of us have any family close by anymore, so we all have Christmas lunch together every year." I smile at past memories. "We always have heaps of fun, and stuff ourselves silly." I take a peek at the thermometer in the pot, and notice it's nowhere near reaching temperature yet.
"You leave that," says Liz, shooing me away. "Why don't you both get out for a bit. Go for a swim. You brought your bathers right, Bella?"
I flush and nod, but Edward is already headed towards the stairs. "Good idea, Grandma. C'mon," he says, and disappears down the staircase, his feet thundering on the carpeting.
"Take it easy, Edward!" calls Liz. She grins at me. "Go on. Make sure he doesn't drown in the river."
I smile back, feeling suddenly shy, and make my way down the stairs. Once I get to the bottom, Edward is already out the back door. Slipping on my thongs and draping my towel over my shoulder, I join him.
"I forget how nice it is here," he murmurs, and he's right. It is absolutely beautiful here. "I really need to come more often."
"Why don't you?" I ask, feeling suddenly shy. "I mean, I've never seen you here before."
"Dunno." He shrugs, and we start walking, our thongs thwacking as we walk, but barely making a sound above the piercing singing of the cicadas. "I think you've been away the times I've visited before."
"Oh," I reply lamely. "When have you been here?"
"Hmm," he says, stopping when we reach the shade of the large River Red Gum that sits beside the river. "A couple of years ago. I think you were in America a couple of times?"
"For holidays, visiting my mum," I reply. "I try to go a couple of times a year."
"Anyway, Grandma talks about you heaps," he says, pulling down the rope swing from its hook that is really a big nail hammered into the tree. "I think you were away on some of the weekends I came, too."
As I think, I shrug and bite my lip. "Netball, probably. We've done a few overnighters."
Edward grins as he pulls his t-shirt over his head. "I haven't met you before. Because if I'd met you, I definitely would've remembered you." And with that, he grabs the rope and swings out over the water, his grinning face the last thing I see before he plunges into the river.
A/N: There's more to come. I'm hoping to finish around about New Years, but as I'm sure you all understand, this year can get a little crazy. I'll do my best!
I wish you all a very happy Christmas, whether it's filled with snow, sunshine, or somewhere in between!