Emma Healy didn’t hate Easter. That would be ridiculous, and with Easter’s changing dates it wasn’t every year her birthday fell across the festival. It was close though. Close enough that each year she was forced to grin and bear the chocolate mountain that her friends and relatives invariably created with their birthday gifts.
To be fair, Emma liked chocolate as much as the next girl but there were limits, and she liked other things too. Lots of other things, like books and art and wine and jewellery and clothes and music. Holidays too. Yet no one seemed to think beyond chocolate.
No, she didn’t hate Easter. It made her grit her teeth though.
Which was exactly what she did as she cycled her e-bike to her grandparents’, dodging oblivious jaywalkers and cutting through the horrendous tourist traffic that always clogged her beloved seaside town this time of year. Not even the sight of over-sugared squealing children on an egg hunt in Pacific Park loosened her jaw, and Emma liked children.
Dodging yet another dawdler, she steered onto the steep road that led to the sea and Poppy and Gigi’s expansive beachside villa. The weather was glorious, as it tended to be on the north coast this time of year. Bright and vivid blue, with the Pacific Ocean sparkling brilliantly in the distance.
Wind lifted the curls splaying from beneath her helmet as she zoomed down the slope. The e-bike had been an expensive and indulgent buy, but worth every cent. Her job as a graphic designer was mostly sedentary and Emma needed the exercise, but she wasn’t a martyr. The slope to the beach was enough to make a triathlete wince. Going down was fine, if occasionally hairy when the traffic was bad. Coming back was a sweaty, puffy, thigh-screaming nightmare. The e-bike made it almost a pleasure.
It had panniers too. Lime-green, pink and yellow flowered panniers that matched Emma’s gauzy top and would later be as loaded with chocolate as her belly would be with Gigi’s cooking. Which was also why Emma was wearing her favourite stretchy-waisted white pedal pusher pants. She was a girl who enjoyed her food.
Georgette Healy hugged Emma heartily on arrival then held her at arm’s length for a once-over. ‘Happy birthday, darling girl,’ she said, beaming and radiant in a purple kaftan and her usual overabundance of jingly-jangly bling. ‘You’re looking delightful, as always, if a bit flushed. You should have let Poppy pick you up.’
‘I needed the ride and it’s beautiful out there.’
‘It is, it is. It’s also full of annoying tourists wearing Crocs and baseball caps.’ Georgette gave a theatrical shudder.
Emma grinned. Gigi was a terrible fashion snob, a hangover from her modelling days. ‘You do choose to live in tourist hotspot.’
‘As do you, my darling. As do you. Now,’ said Gigi, looping her arm through Emma’s, ‘come out back. Nearly everyone’s here and they’re all dying to wish you happy birthday and give you your presents.’
Emma did her best to keep her smile wide.
Gigi patted her hand. ‘I know, I know. But they mean well. And you never know…’ She gave Emma a little nudge. ‘…you might be in for a surprise or two this year.’
Emma doubted it. Even her parents, who were currently on holiday in Europe, had sent her their usual gift of a charm for the charm bracelet she’d been adding to since she was eighteen, and which currently decorated her wrist. It was sweet though – a horse from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Emma looked forward to joining the charm with the others, adding to the story of her life and of those she loved.
As predicted, there were no surprises. Emma sat under the vine-wrapped patio at her grandparents’ enormous outdoor table with a fragrant sea breeze fluttering her hair and unwrapped box after box of chocolate, smiling her rictus smile as uncles and aunts and cousins and friends oohed and coo-ed around her, and made tired jokes about how much cycling she’d need to do to wear off all that sugar and fat.
‘Thank you, all of you,’ Emma managed as she packed the gifts on top of one another ready for her panniers and hid her sinking heart. She wasn’t ungrateful – it was the thought that counted, and every gift was given with love – but it was a little disappointing. Just once, she would love to receive something that showed not just affection but understanding of who she was. ‘If you see me covered in pimples, you’ll know what to blame.’
Most had given her truffles or other filled chocolates. Even her brother Charlie had succumbed, offering only a sheepish smile in apology. Cousin Jemima hadn’t even bothered to hide that she’d bought an Easter special, presenting Emma with a Lindt gold bunny ‘because it’s so cute!’ That it was, but it was still an Easter item and not a birthday present.
‘We saved the best for last,’ said Poppy, coming forward with Gigi and holding out a blue envelope that was definitely not chocolate-box thickness.
‘Something different, darling,’ said Gigi, before leaning closer and whispering, ‘Something you’ll love.’ Then she winked and stood back.
Emma released the envelope’s seal and partly drew out the thick card inside. She glanced at her grandparents. The pair were huddled together, hand in hand, and sharing smug smiles.
‘Well, go on,’ said Poppy, flipping his free hand at her. ‘Read it.’
Emma extracted the card fully. She read, then read again, her hand fluttering to her chest. Heat prickled her eyes. She bit her lip to hold back the tears.
Such a small thing yet so wonderful.
‘Thank you,’ she said, then rushed upright to hug them both, the disappointment of earlier drowned by her grandparents’ love.
When they’d finished their heartfelt embrace Emma looked again at her present. It was a voucher but not just any voucher. A one-hundred-dollar voucher for BookBar, her favourite shop in Greenridge Bay. A unique business that was bookstore by day and trendy wine and tapas bar by night. Books, wine and delicious snacks in a shop decorated like a cosy home library, with comfortable sofas and chairs and rugs on the floor, soft, piped music for even more ambience, and wide bay windows with cushioned seats and an unparalleled view over the bay. Romantic and welcoming, it was the sort of place a girl could blissfully move into, were such things allowed.
‘But I thought it was closing down?’ she said, hoping her grandparents hadn’t wasted their money. As far as Emma knew, BookBar had been on the market for at least three months. The owner having decided to sell after tragically being diagnosed with cancer and needing to concentrate on their health. If a buyer couldn’t be found, closure was the only other option.
They shared a sly look.
‘Nope,’ said Poppy, fairly bouncing up and down on his heels.
‘It’s been sold,’ added Gigi.
‘Sold? To who?’
Again, another shared look. Georgette looked about to burst. Her husband gave her hand a tug before answering. ‘Oh, I’m sure we’ll find out soon.’
Emma narrowed her eyes. She knew her grandparents and they were holding a secret. One that concerned Emma. ‘You two are up to something.’
‘Indeed, we are, darling girl. Your birthday!’ And with that announcement Gigi clapped her hands and began to usher a posse of helpers toward the kitchen, leaving Emma staring after her, purse-lipped and toying with her charm bracelet as she tried to untangle what Poppy and Gigi were up to.
Lunch proceeded in its usual fashion with ridiculous quantities of food. The table heaved with two of Gigi’s signature seafood platters, along with baskets of bread and salads of various persuasions, cheese and fruit, and loads of wine and beer. One thing Emma’s grandparents knew how to do well was entertain and their parties drew even the most reluctant family member.
‘Where are Fen and Wesley?’ Emma asked Gigi as she helped herself to some tabouli. Fenella and Wesley Kingston were her grandparents’ best friends and rarely missed a gathering.
‘Oh, they’re just taking care of something. They’ll be here soon.’
A false note in her grandmother’s voice had Emma giving her the side-eye. But Gigi had turned to her left and started a merry conversation with Charlie.
She tried her grandfather. ‘Are you and Gigi up to something?’
‘I should hope so. Life would be quite boring if we weren’t.’ Poppy raised a single eyebrow at her. ‘It’s what grandparents are for.’
‘Stop looking so worried, poppet. It’s your birthday.’ He reached for the champagne and ignoring Emma’s head shake, topped up her glass. He filled his own, then lifted it, indicating for Emma to do the same. She caved and pressed her glass against his. ‘To my dearest Emma-sweet. May all your tomorrows be filled with even more love than what we share now.’
He was so twinkly-eyed and sincere Emma’s heart could only soften. Her family were adorable, even if they did always give her chocolate for her birthday. ‘Thanks, Poppy.’
When the mains were over and everyone had had a sufficient break to allow room for dessert, Poppy called for attention. A heartfelt speech that left Emma dabbing at her eyes and sniffing followed, along with a raucous rendition of happy birthday and a trio of hip-hip-hoorays that had her tears dissolving into laughter. Moments later, Gigi appeared at the patio doors carrying an enormous – and uber trendy – semi-naked iced quadruple layer cake topped with flashing sparklers.
She carried it to the table to more oohs and coos, handed Emma a ribbon-wrapped knife, and fondly kissed her cheek. Emma sliced to the tune of ‘For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ and much applause, and bowed.
‘You will notice, darling,’ said Gigi quietly as she helped Emma apportion cake pieces, ‘that it’s not chocolate.’
‘I did. Jemima’s already had a small whinge about the fact.’
‘Of course she did.’
They smiled knowingly at each other only to look aside as the doorbell rang.
‘And about time too,’ said Gigi, setting down her cake server and dashing off in a flurry of purple and jingle-jangling gold jewellery, and Poppy hot on her trail.
‘Right,’ said Emma, regarding the server, the cake, and the line-up of eager dessert hunters. With a sigh, she picked up the cake server and doled out another piece.
‘Look who’s arrived, darling!’
Emma turned to find her grandparents flanking Fen and Wesley, but it wasn’t Poppy and Gigi’s dearest friends who immediately caught her eye. It was the sandy-haired athletically built man behind them that made her breath catch and her heart hiccup.
Her fingers automatically went to her charm bracelet. Somewhere, tangled with all the other symbols of memories and loves, was a small chef’s toque. Brock’s last gift to remember him by before he journeyed down to Sydney to take up a position at one of the harbour city’s most prestigious restaurants. An accolade-filled career had been followed by a move to London. The last Emma had heard was that Brock was working for Gordon Ramsay at one of the celebrity chef’s signature restaurants.
Delighted with themselves, the two sets of grandparents parted like the Red Sea until Emma and Brock were left staring at each other like stunned mullets.
Brock was the first to regain his senses. He stepped toward her and kissed her cheek. ‘Happy birthday, Em. It’s been a long time.’
‘It has.’ Breathlessness made Emma’s voice hoarse. She swallowed and smiled past her shock. ‘You look great, Brock. London suits you.’
She meant it. The boy she’d known all her life and had dated all too briefly as a twenty-year-old had grown into a man. A handsome man, who’d kept most of the surfer-boy looks that had so enamoured Emma when she was young. Although, as she assessed him more closely, Emma realised his skin was paler and layered with fatigue. The results of a London winter and jetlag, she imagined. It was a long and tiring haul to Australia. She’d done it herself.
Gigi pushed against Emma’s side, nudging her away from the table. Partner-in-crime Fen was right alongside. ‘I’ll take care of this, darling,’ she said, snagging the cake server. ‘You and Brock go catch up.’
Emma opened her mouth to protest and snapped it shut. It was her birthday. If Brock was her secret present, then she was going to make the most of him before he disappeared from her life again.
‘Come on,’ she said, grabbing his hand, ‘let’s go find somewhere quiet. I want to hear all about your adventures.’
She found a nook at the back of the garden shaded by a giant jacaranda but open to the sea view and the breeze. Emma sat but Brock remained standing, fists in his shorts pockets as he gazed over the ocean.
‘I missed this,’ he said, then looked at her in a way that made Emma’s chest flutter and her silly heart think that he’d meant that he’d missed her.
He may have, in the early days. But it had been years and they’d both moved on with their lives, moved on to other loves. There’d been a fiancée in Brock’s life at one point, though she knew from Poppy and Gigi’s gossip that it hadn’t lasted.
‘It’s impossible not to,’ she said, smiling. Emma patted the bench. ‘Sit. I want to hear all about your life as a superchef.’
‘All of it.’
He laughed and Emma was reminded how much she loved that laugh, the deep warmth of it. ‘That could take a while.’ He glanced toward the party. Plenty of curious eyes were cast their way. Her grandparents and the Kingstons had cracked open another bottle of champagne and were heartily toasting themselves. ‘And you have guests to attend.’
‘Guests who brought me a mountain of chocolate. Again.’
His eyebrows shot up. ‘They still do that?’
Brock shook his head. ‘Poor Em.’
‘I’m fine.’ And in that moment Emma realised she was. Chocolate present mountain or not, her Easter birthday was rapidly turning into one of the best she’d had in years. ‘More than fine. Now quit being the shy boy I know you aren’t and tell me all about London.’
Twenty minutes in, Poppy bustled over with two glasses of champagne and two plates of cake. Emma refused the champagne but took the cake.
‘Not drinking?’ asked Brock.
‘I have to cycle home.’
His gaze widened. ‘Up that hill? Can’t someone give you a lift?’
‘I have an e-bike. It cycles itself. I just hang on.’
A twinkle formed in Brock’s eye. ‘I bet you look cute, cycling around town.’
The words made Emma feel sweeter than the cake she held. It would be foolish to read too much into them. Brock had always been a flirt.
Her bracelet tinkled against the edge of her plate as she ate and listened as Brock shared anecdotes between bites, Emma gasping and laughing at his stories and seemingly glamorous life. She knew enough about cheffing to know the glamour was only surface. Mostly it was hard work and inhospitable hours.
‘You still wear it,’ he said, pointing his fork at the bracelet.
‘I do.’ She held his gaze. ‘I love it. It’s the keeper of all my good memories.’
‘Yeah,’ he said softly, the moment thick with meaning. ‘I know.’
Embarrassed she’d let so much of herself show, Emma twisted her body toward the sea to watch the surf and seagulls as she swallowed the last of her cake.
‘How long are you home for?’ she asked as they carried their plates back to the table, where guests were now pitching in to help tidy. The party was nearing its end. Emma would need to leave soon too. It was approaching three-forty-five and she had the cycle home and was catching up with a girlfriend for birthday drinks at five. Even with the e-bike powering her journey she’d still need a freshen-up and change. ‘If you’re here for a while we should catch up.’
Brock gave her a strange look. ‘You haven’t heard?’
‘I’m back for good.’
Emma’s cake fork rattled on her plate as she set it down. ‘For good? But…’ She stared into his face, not understanding. ‘What about your career? What about Gordon?’
He shrugged. ‘They were great while they lasted. Now I’m ready to ease off.’
‘Right.’ Emma swallowed, unsure what to say, what to do with the news. Brock home? That was… ‘Great.’
‘Yeah, it is. I’ve been wanting to do it for a while. Now here I am.’
‘So,’ Emma couldn’t help her grin or the thrill rising inside. ‘We’ll definitely see each other around then.’
‘You can count on it.’
For a moment they stared goofily, then Cousin Jemima interrupted to say goodbye, followed by a stream of departing well-wishers. By the time Emma turned back, Brock had been buttonholed by Charlie and foisted with a beer.
Gigi wafted to her side, holding yet another glass of champagne. ‘Isn’t it marvellous news, darling?’
‘It is. Fen and Wesley must be beside themselves.’
‘Over the moon.’ Her grandmother peered closer. ‘And you?’
Gigi waggled a finger. ‘Don’t try fibbing to your grandmother, darling. I know how much you mooned after that boy.’
‘I did not moon.’ At her grandmother’s look, she added, ‘Much. We were friends more than anything.’
‘Mmm,’ said Gigi in a way that meant ‘you can kid yourself but not your grandmother’.
Emma dragged in a breath. As much as she wanted to stay, it was time to go. ‘I’d better start packing. I’m meeting Juliet at five.’ She grabbed Gigi and hugged her fiercely. ‘Thank you. I had a wonderful afternoon.’
‘Oh, darling.’ Gigi, who tended to get emotional after too much champagne, was blinking rapidly. ‘I’m so pleased you liked your surprises. When Fen told us Brock would be arriving today, we just had to include him. The timing was too perfect.’ She leaned her shoulder against Emma’s as she eyed Brock. ‘You have to admit he’s a much better present than chocolate.’
Emma laughed. ‘He is.’
Having learned from experience that she’d be held up for another hour if she did a farewell round, even with the diminished numbers, Emma said a group thanks and farewell from the patio doors.
Cheers and good wishes followed Poppy, Gigi and Emma as they carried her chocolate bounty to the front portico where Emma had left her bike.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to leave these here and get Poppy to drop you home?’ asked Gigi as she passed over boxes and cellophane bags for Emma to pack.
Given her grandfather had probably had as much to drink as Gigi, Emma doubted that was a good idea. ‘No, I’m fine. Honestly. And you both still have guests to entertain.’ Satisfied the balance was right, she secured the lefthand pannier’s buckle, then did the same with the right. Both bags bulged with their contents.
She lifted her helmet from where it dangled by the strap over the handlebar and set it on her head, then laughed at her grandmother’s expression. ‘Better an ugly helmet than a dented skull.’
‘Yes, yes, I know, darling, but you’d think they’d find a way to make them less hideous.’ She sighed. ‘At least it’s not a baseball cap.’
Emma leaned in for a final kiss and hug. ‘I would never do that to you.’
As she released Gigi a shadow appeared in the doorway and then emerged into the light.
‘Told you you’d look cute,’ said Brock.
Gigi glanced from Brock to Emma and gave a giggly toodle-do wave before catching her husband’s hand and wafting back inside, no doubt for more champagne and even more gossip. Emma shook her head. Her grandparents were one of a kind.
Brock stepped closer. ‘Sorry I didn’t bring a present.’
‘It’s okay. I have enough and seeing you again was a present in itself.’
Laughter filtered through the open door, reminding Emma she had another party to get to.
She fingered her bike bell. ‘I’m sorry, Brock. I’d love to chat but I have to go.’
‘Juliet. For drinks.’
He nodded and for a fleeting moment Emma thought she caught relief on his face, then he smiled. ‘Say g’day to her for me.’
She manoeuvred her bike toward the driveway, stepped over the low frame and with the bike balanced between her legs, fixed her helmet strap.
‘Still cute?’ she asked teasingly and striking a silly pose.
Emma laughed. ‘Nice to see some things haven’t changed. You’re still you.’ She set her foot on a pedal. ‘See you soon?’
‘I hope so. You’ve got that voucher to spend.’
‘Yeah. To BookBar. Georgette told Gran it’s your favourite place.’
Emma slapped the front of her helmet and groaned. Of course. How could she have missed the cues? ‘It was you. You bought it. You’re BookBar’s new owner.’
Brock spread his arms. ‘The one and only.’
She grinned. ‘Then I’ll definitely see you soon. Oh, and just in case you’ve forgotten, I like merlot.’
‘Don’t worry, I haven’t.’
‘Good.’ Emma pressed down on the pedal, her other foot joining in. The bike’s electric engine engaged and off she powered, waving as she went. Breeze on her back and life – and maybe the tomorrows full of love her Poppy had promised – ahead.
She was halfway up the steep hill, puffing a little because Emma still had to do something to make the bike go, when she felt an irrepressible need for chocolate.
Steering one-handed, Emma unlatched the right-side pannier and groped around for the Lindt gold bunny she’d packed on top. Tearing at the foil, she exposed a long ear. Laughing out loud and startling a meandering walker, she bit off its entire ear and munched happily on the sweet, velvety confection.
No, Emma didn’t hate Easter. In fact, after today, there was a very good chance she might even come to love it.
© Cathryn Hein 2023