A New Sunrise

Allison Hay © Illustration of sunrise.


It was a long way to go, to do my cousin a favour… but a short hop from there to falling in love with this bookish town.

The first rays of the sun streak across the sky, a celestial paintbrush daubing the clouds a rosy apricot. Cocooned in a blanket, I sit outside my room on a concrete balcony, embracing the reflected light on my face.

When was the last time my life slowed down enough for me to watch the sun rise? It’s taken this trip to the other side of the world.

Mind you, how many mornings do I wake in Leeds to sunshine? I haven’t had any incentive to sit outside looking at rain in recent times.

I sip my coffee, gazing through the mist and clouds that stretch to the horizon. When the mist lifts, I’ll be looking out to the Pacific Ocean. Next stop, America.

There’s a hint of guilt, but I’m not letting it get in the way. I know zilch about working in a bookshop. I was upfront with my cousin about that when he phoned the other week with his hare-brained idea.

But you have retail experience, right?

Ben asked, unfazed.

A white lie crossed my lips as my mind drifted to endless skies and sandy beaches.

“A little.” When I was ten years old, I helped out at the local pet shop during school holidays in return for bags of decent dog food.

How hard could it be? Isn’t everything computerised these days? I’m no slouch when it comes to that. It’s how I make my living. Why not help Ben out? I could keep my own business afloat at the same time. This is traditionally a quiet patch for me. Last year I spent a month in Florence. Why not spend a month Down Under in Maleny?

Until Ben moved there and bought a bookshop, I’d never heard of the place. But checking online, I’ve discovered this small country town in the Sunshine Coast hinterlands boasts five bookshops, two of them selling second-hand books. It sounds like a community where I’d feel very much at home.

And if not? It’s only a month – with free bed and board. A stone’s throw from some of the best beaches in the world.

As I sit here with my coffee, the heavy mist begins to thin out, revealing rooftops and roads. A strange set of mountains slowly appear to my right, all oddly shaped. These are the Glasshouse Mountains. Looking at them, I’m not sure why Captain Cook decided to name them that. Not that I could come up with a better suggestion.

The tranquillity is disturbed by the ringing of my phone. The face reads seven o’clock. I’m surprised to realise I’ve been asleep for the past two hours.

It’s Adam – Ben’s right hand man at the bookshop.

“Coffee, Sue?” he asks.

I grab my robe and stumble downstairs to the big kitchen at the back of the bookshop. It was set up by the previous owners who had a small café there.

“We open at eight.” He hands me a mug of coffee. “People like to browse on their way to work.”

Adam’s already showered and dressed for the day. He lives in jeans and black T-shirts. Today’s T-shirt has a drawing of Shakespeare on the front with the words To Be Or Not to Be. Does he do these himself? I wouldn’t mind one. Yesterday’s T-shirt had a rose with the words By Any Other Name.

“You still jet-lagged, Sue?” he asks. He’s allowed me to sleep at any hour since I arrived on Monday evening. I’ve yet to be useful in any way.

“How can a small town like this have five bookshops?” I ask.

He smiles. “That’s not all,” he says. “The op shops sell books too. There are four of those.”

“Op shops?” I repeat, puzzled.

“It’s short for opportunity. They’re charity shops.”

The coffee tastes wonderful. I help myself to more from his stovetop espresso and put two slices of bread into the toaster, suddenly hungry.

“I don’t know how you stay in business with all that competition.”

Again, that smile. “We try to offer a better experience,” he says.

I’d noticed the coffee machine and the armchairs in one corner of the bookshop. That’d be enough to tempt me inside. And if I’m honest, Adam would too. Six foot two of muscular Aussie manhood. It’s no surprise that his book clubs here are well attended.

“You any good at making coffee?” he asks. “Ben always does that. And he bakes muffins.”

Ben’s had to fly to New Zealand to help his parents after recent flooding over there. That’s why I’ve stepped into his shoes for the next four weeks. Why he didn’t ask someone local is a mystery, but I’m not complaining. The more I see of this little country town sitting on the ranges, the more I like it.

I spread butter and Vegemite on the toast. “Not bad,” I tell him. It’s not dissimilar to Marmite.

Adam’s flicking through a notebook. He shows me a handwritten recipe. Mum’s Muffins.

Reckon you could make a few dozen of these this morning? Thursdays are always busy.

Cooking on an industrial scale sounds daunting. I make muffins six at a time at home. Not by the dozen. But it’s about time I started to earn my keep.

“I’ll see how I go.”

Adam’s already on his way. Still munching toast and Vegemite, I read the recipe. Nothing complicated. Just a basic batter recipe with suggested variations.

When I finish breakfast and check out the pantry, there’s enough here to feed a small army. I haven’t seen a sack of self-raising flour before. I turn on the oven and set to work. Soon I’ve produced a huge bowl of batter. Lining the muffin tins with patty papers, I set to work creating different varieties. There are blueberry and fig muffins, orange and poppyseed, apple and cinnamon, double chocolate caramel, raspberry and white chocolate. Half a dozen of five different varieties. Surely that’s enough?

I’ve regularly heard the door tinkle as customers enter the bookshop but am still surprised by how many people there are as I walk through with a tray of muffins. The aroma causes an instant queue to form by the small counter where the coffee machine is set up. It’s validating – but also daunting, when I realise Adam expects me to be the barista as well.

“You’ll soon get the hang of it, Sue,” he says encouragingly.

It’d be nice to have his confidence. Grinding the beans and producing the crema is within my capabilities. But when it comes to coffee art, I’m stepping into big shoes. Ben’s famous coffee art repertoire includes surfboards as well as the usual hearts and swirls. And Adam is no slouch either.

Me? How many times does a customer say “Never mind” when they see my efforts?

By midday I’m wrecked. As far as my body’s concerned, it’s ten at night in Leeds.

Making my excuses, I head upstairs to the flat above the shop. Next time I stir, the sun’s setting. I’ve slept for six hours. As I make a pot of tea, Adam knocks and comes in. Now he looks wrecked. His brown eyes are bleary.

“Can you take over?” he says. “I’m starving. All I’ve eaten today is muffins.”

I resist saying, “But it’s five o’clock.”

He reads my expression.

“Thursday is night shopping.”

I quickly shower and change, run a hand over my hair and head downstairs. The coffee machine needs cleaning and the muffin baskets are empty. A handful of customers are in the shop.

As the hours tick by, a steady stream of people comes in. Mainly to browse and chat. I sell a few copies of a vegetarian recipe book written by someone local. And someone orders Thich Nhat Hanh’s Calligraphy. Ten more copies of JoJo Moyes’ Someone Else’s Shoes fly off the shelves.

I lock up at nine o’clock then stay behind to clean the coffee machine.

It might be nine pm in Maleny but as far as my body clock is concerned, it’s eleven in the morning.

In the end, I get out the mixing bowl and recipe book. It’s easier this time. Once the table is covered with tins of delicious muffins, I decide to make one more batch. My own personal favourites.

The following morning, I sleep through the sunrise. And through my alarm. My day begins at nine when Adam knocks on my door. He’s brought a breakfast tray and sits in the armchair by the window. His smile reaches his eyes.

“You’re a star, Sue,” he says, pouring the coffee. “What flavour are these?”

I take my first grateful sip of coffee. Scattered dream images evaporate like yesterday’s mist lifting.

“Taste them and guess,” I tell him, brightening at his words.

He bites into a large crumbly muffin and smiles appreciatively.

“It’s coffee. And is that almond meal you’ve used?”

I nod. “Yes. Some customers yesterday asked if we had anything gluten-free.”

Adam stretches his legs. He manages to look as comfortable as my mother’s Himalayan Persian.

“Would you write the recipe out for us?” he asks. “Nobody’s going to want you to go home again.”

Not sure I want to go home myself.

I’m joking, but part of me is quite serious. There’s something addictive about sunshine and life in a quiet country town. And there’s something addictive about Adam, with his quiet confidence and friendliness.

This feeling lingers over the next week or so. A comfortable pattern develops. My days start with coffee and a muffin, sometimes on my balcony at dawn, weather permitting. My cooking repertoire increases.

Going through the myriad pots and pans downstairs, I find quiche tins, stockpots and several slow cookers. I’ve noticed we get an influx of customers at lunchtime. When I bake a quiche one morning, it’s gone before it even cools down. The pumpkin soup, served with sourdough from the bakery also vanishes.

Adam and I begin making lamb rogan josh and chilli con carne in the slow cookers. Soon we have to set up small tables and chairs. The dishwasher is kept busy, and so are we.

My body clock is finally aligned with its new time zone.

Monday is my day off. Adam’s been showing me local attractions.

What will he show me today? I wonder, as the alarm drags me out of sleep and I remember his farewell comment last night. “If you’re awake at dawn, I’ll show you something special.”

The sunrise, though special, isn’t what he means. But he hasn’t given me any other clues. Just said I should wear something old.

Dressed in faded jeans I picked up for two dollars in an op shop and an old T-shirt of Ben’s, I head downstairs for a real coffee. I’m spoilt by the coffee machine. The instant variety which I have in the flat has lost its appeal.

I turn the machine on and investigate the muffins left over from yesterday. I’m in luck. There’s a coffee almond one.

I hear Adam’s Jeep pull up outside. My spirits lift. Last Monday he took me to a parrot sanctuary. Rosellas and black cockatoos perched on my shoulders and I hand-fed rainbow lorikeets.

Where is Adam taking me today? After driving for fifteen minutes, he brakes.

“There’s nothing here,” I tell him.

“That’s what you think,” he says. “I’m hoping we’re in luck.”

I follow him along a dirt track to a muddy creek. It brings back memories of a favourite book from my childhood, The Bunyip Of Berkeley’s Creek.

“Are we waiting for a bunyip?”

He hasn’t shaved today. The rough stubbly look suits him.

“Shhh. We’re waiting for something very shy.” He sits by the creek on a thick clump of grass. “Don’t say a word.”

An hour later, I still haven’t said a word. Sitting by the creek breathing in the bush smells and listening to the dawn chorus of birds feels meditative.

Then Adam’s shoulder muscles tauten and he leans forward.

I look intently at the creek. There’s no emerging bunyip, but the surface of the water is disturbed. My mind races. Catfish? Yabbies? What else have I heard of?

A small muddy creature becomes visible, its characteristic bill and webbed feet leaving me in no doubt. We don’t move a muscle as the platypus surfaces and swims towards the bank.

If only I’d had my phone camera trained on the creek. When it swims out of sight again, Adam’s eyes are alight.

That’s something a lot of Australians have never seen.

He says proudly.

I feel a warm glow inside and insist on shouting him breakfast at a café on the main street. We sit outside on the pavement watching life go by.

It’s so different here. There’s always something unexpected. Today’s surprise is the sight of an old man walking along the pavement, holding two leads. On one is a Border collie. On the other is a lamb.

He ties both up outside a shop that sells baskets, spices and homemade soaps. No one bats an eyelid. He’s a regular.

“That’s something I’ll never see in Leeds,” I murmur.

He’s looking at me with those thoughtful brown eyes. And I realise with a pang how much I’m going to miss him. The thought comes out of the blue and lodges itself deep within me.

I’ve never met anyone like Adam in Leeds either. In another nine days, I’ll have to say goodbye and fly home. Only one more Monday excursion.

“What’s up?”

He reaches over and places a hand on mine. It feels warm and comforting.

What can I say? That I’m already missing what might have been?

“I’ve just realised I only have nine days left here.”

“You can always come back for holidays,” he says.

There’s a long pause. His eyes meet mine and his voice softens.

Or… you could stay?

He breathes.

My heart beats faster at his words. And at the serious tone in his voice. I know he means what he said.

This moment stays with me for the rest of the day – his hand on mine, his gaze. Everything I’ve done here has been in the knowledge that it’s temporary. I’m borrowing Ben’s bicycle and his Mazda. Living in the spare bedroom of his flat. Working in his bookshop.

My presence here is predicated around his absence. How could things work if I stayed longer? He wouldn’t really need my help in the bookshop. And he’d be using his own vehicles.

That evening as I bake muffins, it’s with the thought that this new life I’m enjoying is drawing to an inevitable close. I’m not ready to let it go just yet.

When Ben phones the following morning, he throws a spanner in the works. Fate is calling my bluff.

“I need to stay here a bit longer,” he says, after asking how things are going. “I don’t suppose you’d be free for another fortnight? Only Adam said you’re doing a great job.”

I sip my coffee. My instant reaction is a sigh of relief at being able to postpone the inevitable. But the longer I stay, the harder it’s going to be to leave. And if I stay too long?…

Well, I might never leave.

Is that what I really want?

There’s only one way to find out.

Am I game?

The thought of leaving and never knowing whether I’ve made the right decision sways me.

I can manage another two weeks here.

I tell him.

As we speak, a crazy thought lodges in my head, refusing to leave. Why don’t we reopen the café? That could be my job when Ben returns.

I sound him out.

“Funny you should say that,” he says. “We’ve been talking about doing just that – if only we had someone to do the extra baking.”

After our call, I sit on the balcony. Looking straight ahead, I can see Mount Coolum and Mount Ninderry, the village of Yandina, the snaking lines of traffic. All familiar to me now. And I realise I’ve made the right decision.

Why hurry back towards the known when I’m having so much fun here, exploring the unknown?

Read more uplifting short stories:

Read Open Mic Night, Old Friends, Curtains Up, plus many more in our archives.

Georgia Grieve