Romance Writers of Australia Ripping Start Finalist 2019
Stepping away from her rental car, she stood before the sorry-excuse-for-a-house and prayed she had the wrong address. Yet the rusty digits on the letterbox confirmed she was where she was meant to be. One of the digits gave an obstinate rattle in the wind but nevertheless came loose, swinging upside down to appear as a six instead of a nine. It mocked her as it squeaked back and forth on one screw.
The wind picked up, whipping her hair about her head. Loose sheets on the corrugated tin roof of the house flapped and clanged, sending a desolate cry to the world. Miserable grimy windows stared unblinkingly from the lop-sided porch. Drab grey paint peeled from the weatherboard siding as if the house were attempting to shed its skin and create for itself a new identity.
If only it were that easy.
Shivering, she wrapped her thin cardigan tightly around her waist and surveyed the rest of the property. The yard consisted of neglected knee-high grass and not much else, while enormous karri trees stood sentinel at the rear, rising and looming, as if daring her to think harshly of the place.
Frowning, she studied the house once more.
Did it really belong to her?
The sound of a vehicle pulling up to the kerb caught her attention, and a balding man hopped out of the car, dressed neatly in suit and tie. He tucked a brown leather satchel under one arm and made his way over to her.
‘You must be Beth Campbell?’ His brows rose expectantly, and he smiled, thrusting a hand towards her.
‘I am.’ She put her hand in his. ‘Mr O’Dwyer?’
‘Please, call me Vince,’ he said, and gestured at the house. ‘After you.’
She made her way up the uneven garden path and stepped gingerly onto the porch, sucking in a breath as the timber creaked and sagged beneath her feet.
‘Here we go,’ said Vince, taking a set of keys from his pocket and cheerfully dangling them in front of her. ‘You should do the honours.’
Hesitantly, she took them. Holding them in her hand a moment, she forced herself to swallow the possibilities—the hope—glinting off the dull brass.
She stepped forward and pushed the key into the barrel, eventually managing to wield the squeaky mechanism into submission. Inside, their footsteps were muffled by the thick layer of dust coating the floorboards. She coughed, the mustiness of the stale air assaulting her.
Vince made his way down the central hallway to the rear of the house. Following, Beth glanced into the rooms on either side as she passed. Pale winter light was barely managing to filter through the dirt on the windows. Each space was a dark and empty void.
‘You’re a difficult person to track down, Beth.’ The lawyer lifted his satchel onto the kitchen counter and removed a manila folder. ‘You don’t know how glad I am that you finally managed to make it here.’
She averted her eyes and when she spoke her voice was tight, strained. ‘The news came as a bit of a shock.’
His movements ceased and the sound of shuffling papers along with it.
‘I’m sure it did,’ he said.
She glanced up to see the corner of his mouth lifting in a compassionate smile, his soft eyes considering her carefully.
Clearing her throat, she looked at the pile of paperwork in front of him, silently urging him to get on with things.
In front of her, he placed a letter of probate, and another document—its heading capitalised:
THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF MARY ANNE CAMPBELL
The black lettering stood stark against the white paper, the name imprinting on her mind.
Vince shifted slightly. ‘I’ll step outside a moment while you take a look over everything,’ he murmured. ‘Take all the time you need.’
Alone, she lifted a trembling hand to the papers, tracing her fingers over the words. MARY ANNE CAMPBELL.
Beth closed her eyes and sucked in a shuddering breath, letting the name settle deep in her bones, wanting desperately to connect to the woman she’d never known—the great aunt she hadn’t even known existed until a month ago.
After a moment, she opened her eyes and cast them over the letter of probate, noting the date of death was twelve months ago; the place, a nursing home in Bunbury. Vince had told her it was where Mary had spent the last ten years of her life—away from the town she’d been born in, away from everyone she knew.
Ten years of living alone. With no family to care for her.
Rubbing the ache in her chest, Beth flipped open Mary’s will and scanned the document, indifferent to her inheritance. She’d give it all up in a heartbeat if it meant she’d have the chance to know Mary.
A string of words on the third page caught her eye.
Staring back at her, in bold capitalised letters, was her own name. The blood in her veins froze, holding her captive.
Mary had known about her?
Frantic, she flicked back to the front page of the document. It was dated eleven years ago.
The room spun. She grabbed the edge of the counter and dropped to her haunches, anchoring herself to the earth. At the very least, her aunt had known about her for as long as she’d been in the nursing home. The realisation was like a knife to the gut.
The groaning timbers of the front porch signalled Vince’s return, and Beth stood, sucking air in through her nose and blowing it out slowly as his muffled footsteps came closer.
Smiling as he walked into the room, he faltered slightly when their eyes met. ‘Everything okay?’
‘I’m named in the will.’
He frowned, nodding. ‘Yes.’
‘I thought you had to track me down.’
The crease between his brow deepened and he nodded. ‘That’s right. Each time I managed to find you, you’d moved on again before my correspondence could reach you. If you hadn’t stayed as long as you did in the last town, I’d probably still be looking.’
Biting down hard on her lip, she rubbed at her forehead. ‘I assumed you’d been searching for any long-lost relative. You know, you traced the family tree and you found me . . .’
Understanding dawned, and Vince shook his head sadly. ‘I’m so sorry, Beth.’ Pity shone from his eyes, making her wish she had someone to hold her, someone that could make the hurt bearable.
‘I can’t say too much right now,’ he continued, stepping forward to give her a supportive pat on the arm, ‘but there are reasons why Mary was a stranger to you. I regret my hands are tied, but in six months, everything will be cleared up.’
‘What—?’ She shook her head, willing the words to make sense.
‘It’s all in the will.’ He gestured at the paperwork. ‘As well as the house and the estate’s cash funds, she’s left a box of letters for you that will explain everything.’
Vince swallowed, his throat working with the effort. ‘Between Mary and . . . other members of your family.’
A chill swept down her spine, the ghosts from her past clamouring for attention.
‘When can I see these letters?’ Her tongue was like sandpaper on the roof of her mouth.
‘Well, that’s the thing,’ said Vince, wincing apologetically. ‘She’s stipulated that you need to stay, here in Blackwood, for a period of at least six months before you can claim them.’
His words hung in the air, floating over surfaces covered in dust and filth. They bounced off questionable brown stains scattered across the ceiling and danced around evidence of mice littering the floor.
‘There’s a bed and breakfast in town,’ Vince offered kindly. ‘I can personally recommend it.’
She nodded, slowly coming to terms with spending six months in Western Australia’s southwest. At the very least, it would make a nice change from the humidity of far-north Queensland.
She shrugged. ‘I guess I can stay for a while.’
I first began writing this story in 2013. It was the first creative piece I’d ever written — and it was terrible! This scene was written in 2018 during my second attempt to tell Beth’s story. That draft wasn’t any good either. 🙁
The good news is, my muse has called me back to this manuscript, and I think the time is right for the story to be told. So if you enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing to my author newsletter, as I’ll be sharing updates on how the story is shaping up — plus, I’ll send you a bunch of other goodies!