When Eve first met James in Australia she thought she’d found a love that would last a lifetime, but six years later it’s over when the strong tug of home pulls her back to England for good, and James declares he has no intention of coming with her – ever. Crushed and at a crossroads, life is not what Eve expected it would be at 30 years of age. Her nursing career has led to burnout, and her friends seem to have everything together just when she’s found herself single, unemployed, and living with her parents. Until best friend Emily persuades her to throw caution to the wind and pursue the thread of an idea, the wisp of a dream inspired by her time overseas – to launch a Melbourne-style café in the heart of Newcastle-upon-Tyne offering a busy program of activities for locals to participate in.
By Christmas The Melbourne Community Café is a thriving business serving the best coffee this side of the Northern Hemisphere, but when Eve opens its doors for the first time she also opens her heart to those around her; inviting in friendship, romance, and unexpected troubles along the way. Subject to the advances of an egotistical Italian heartthrob named Paolo and eagerly pursued by Thom, the local handyman, Eve doesn’t think anything can compare to what she had with James – but when everything around her shatters and only one man helps her pick up the pieces, will her inability to let go thwart her second chance at happiness? And could her decision to employ a recovered drug-addict with a questionable criminal history and contacts who represents the very community ethos Eve is passionate about threaten everything she and her staff have worked so hard to achieve?
‘A bird may love a fish, signore, but where would they live?’
Ever After: A Cinderella Story, 1998 [Film].
‘Stay with me here in Australia,’ James implored, his eyes wide and beseeching as he reached across the car’s gear-stick to grip Eve’s knee, the warmth of his hand penetrating through her jeans. The international airport terminal loomed behind them heralding the end of their time together, and the glare of the drop-off zone’s harassed parking attendant lent a sense of urgency to the farewell they could do without. ‘Please? Stay…’
Eve felt her heart shatter into a thousand pieces and was certain it could never be whole again. She looked at James one last time; her boyfriend of six years, the love of her life; and felt her resolve waver. Those striking grey eyes, that tawny hair, the mouth that had kissed her so many, many times; the arms that had held her, the hands that had touched her… She reached out and brushed his cheek with her palm, the hint of stubble beneath her fingers instantly drawing her mind back to the shared intimacy of the night before – their final night together. She wanted to imprint him on her mind forever; the memories they’d shared would be her only comfort from now on.
Winter rain slashed across the windscreen, lending greater intimacy to a moment that in any other circumstances would have been eagerly embraced by the young couple.
‘We both know I can’t.’ Her head pounded with the pressure of unshed tears as she leant over to press her lips against his one last time, forehead to forehead. ‘I love you, James,’ she whispered, her voice catching in her throat.
‘I love you too,’ he murmured against her mouth.
With that Eve dashed from the car as fast as she could to the loos of Melbourne airport, the accumulating puddles and her cumbersome suitcase containing all her worldly goods the only things impeding her momentum. She slammed herself into a cubicle where she promptly burst into tears. She hadn’t once stopped to look behind her. If she had, she would have heard James whisper into the silence she’d left behind: ‘And I always will,’ before bending over his steering wheel where he sobbed unselfconsciously into the palm of his hands, rousing not an ounce of sympathy from the indignant parking attendant who waved him on his way.
Eve knew that if she hadn’t have left when she did, she would never have been able to go at all, and somewhere deep inside she felt certain she was doing the right thing for both of them – and James knew it too otherwise he wouldn’t have resisted the overwhelming impulse to chase after her.
There was a tentative knock upon the cubicle door. ‘Are you alright in there, darl?’ a woman asked, as much with curiosity as concern.
‘I’m fine,’ Eve lied. But it was no use, and she slid onto the floor and cried her heart out until she really did have to pull herself together and get going otherwise she’d miss her flight back home to England.
Eve brushed a stray tear from her cheek as she glanced absentmindedly from the aeroplane window across the dawn-streaked landscape of her home, already dotted here and there with the living room lights of Newcastle upon Tyne’s earliest risers. If she was just visiting this would be the highlight of her arduous journey from Australia; tracing the familiar path of the River Tyne as it met the North Sea between the North and South Shields’ piers, searching out landmarks such as the Tyne Bridge and St. Mary’s Lighthouse, straining to see her parents’ own coastal street as the plane banked sharply from land to sea and back again before lining up to make its landing.
But this time was different. Her excitement was engulfed by a potent mixture of grief and loss, anxiety and fear, and the knowledge she would never again call Australia home. She’d worked hard as a nurse in a busy inner-city hospital, made some fantastic friends she would miss keenly, rented an apartment in a popular part of town that eventually endeared itself with all its quirks and imperfections, and fallen deeply in love with a man to whom she was sure no other could possibly measure up. But she had lost him; and at thirty years of age Eve was facing the prospect of a lonely and uncertain future ahead and of preparing herself to start all over again in a country she would have to slowly rediscover.
The plane glided low to land, skimming the fields leading up to the runway before making a skilled landing, braking hard, then turning sharply towards the terminal. When she exited the airport into the cool morning air she was glad of her warm jumper and scarf, even if she was by now bedraggled from the thirty-hour journey. She’d replayed her goodbye to James over and over in her mind during the flight and could scarcely believe it had been more than a day ago already – time and almost ten and a half thousand miles of distance pulling him further and further out of reach.
‘Got the post-holiday blues, have yi, pet?’ empathised the rather nosy taxi driver she’d hailed outside the airport. He had a thick Geordie accent, greying orange hair and prying eyes. He didn’t bother waiting for a response. ‘Been somewhere nice, have yi? Bet it was warmer than it’s been here, I can tell yi. Call this summer?’ He gestured out of the window, where they whizzed past paddocks grazed by a weak early morning sun. ‘Pah!’
Eve wondered how British people would fill their time without the weather to complain about, when to her there was such beauty to be encountered in all weathers and in every season. The grass and trees were of a lush and vibrant green she’d rarely encountered in Australia, and the sky held the promise of a bright and cheery day. ‘Australia,’ she answered reluctantly. ‘I’ve been living over there.’
As the taxi driver covered the familiar roads at a hair-raising pace, she recalled a trip home three years ago when she’d brought James to visit her family for the very first time. She’d been surprised to discover just how much he’d enjoyed the drive home from the airport; blooming meadows dotted with old cottages of stone, quaint villages and country pubs with stereotypical names like The King’s Head and The Rose and Crown. They had shared a giggle at the less stereotypical ones, such as The Hairy Watermelon and The Ploughman’s Trousers.
As they’d neared her parents’ house, he had not expected to encounter such a pretty coastline in a country that was not renowned for its beaches. He’d liked the look of it so much that one of the first things they did together was walk the ragged length of sand dunes at Seaton Sluice, stopping for tea and a wedge of Victoria sponge in a charming tea-room overlooking a small harbour dotted with brightly coloured sail boats. When her dad had pulled into the paved driveway of their nineteen-thirties semi they were not expecting James to find the unremarkable, tiny house so endearing. It was thrilling for her to see her home anew through his eyes and she’d been taken aback by how much she had wanted it to please him.
‘Australia!’ The taxi driver whistled. ‘By, that must’ve been a long flight. I’ve always wanted to gan to Australia me’self – got relatives awa there, yi see, the Buchannan’s – have you heard of them? Hail from Scotland, they do,’ he added, with a hint of pride at this added layer of diversity to his heritage.
‘No, sorry.’ Eve suppressed an eye roll.
‘Wife won’t go though,’ he continued, his disappointment evident. ‘She’s an arachnophobe – thinks a huntsman spider will pick her up and run off with her. Sometimes I’m not sure I’d mind if it did. Still, I’d like to get there one day. Visiting family now are yi?’
‘No, I’ve come back home for good,’ Eve replied, her voice heavy with the implications of that seemingly innocuous declaration.
‘You’ve moved back here?’ He was aghast. ‘But what on earth for?’
Suddenly her eyes filled with tears, her cheeks flushed, and she was unable to speak for the lump forming in her throat.
‘Ah, I see…’ He looked at her astutely from his rear-view mirror, nodding his head in understanding. ‘Had your heart broken, have yi?’ He couldn’t otherwise think of a good enough reason to justify this young woman’s return to miserable old Blighty. ‘Cheer up, pet. A bonny lass like you won’t be single for long, you mark my words.’
Her parents were out on the doorstep waving ecstatically as soon as the taxi pulled into view of their living room window. They’d obviously gotten up early specially, even though Eve had brushed off the offer of a lift to save them the trouble of getting out of bed at such an ungodly hour on a weekend morning. Despite the circumstances she couldn’t wait to see them either, and she wasn’t going to spoil their excitement when she knew they were so pleased to have her home again.
‘Well look at you – you look as though you’re dressed for Christmas,’ joked her dad, Robert, as he smothered her into a giant bear hug. Contrary to Eve, he was dressed with the typical optimism of a Brit in summer – in shorts, a polo shirt, and striped espadrilles. She noticed he had acquired an extra smattering of grey amongst his thick brown hair than the last time she’d seen him and felt a stab of guilt for her prolonged absence.
‘Hello, Bairn,’ said Carol, her mam, whose pale blue eyes creased warmly at the corners as she smiled. No matter how old she got, Eve would always be her ‘bairn.’ ‘How was your flight?’
‘Oh, you know, the usual – far too long! But otherwise fine.’
‘Did you get much sleep?’
‘Nah.’ She’d been far too preoccupied with nursing her broken heart.
‘I love your hair,’ Carol piped into the awkward silence. ‘You really suit having it dark and it’s starting to get some length now. You look gorgeous, even if you are dressed for four-foot of snow – James was mad to let you go.’ She enveloped her daughter into a perfumed hug, complete with the comforting notes of vanilla and rose, and Eve blinked away tears.
‘You must be exhausted,’ said Robert, wisely changing the subject. ‘Come on, I’ll take your suitcase up for you and your mam’ll put the kettle on.’
He cheerfully dragged her bulging suitcase along the driveway, practically giving himself a hernia as he tried to lift it up the steps and over the threshold. ‘Geez, what’ve you got in here, a ton of bricks?’
‘Just what remains of the last six years of my life, Dad.’ Eve was unable to prevent the edge to her tone, and Carol shot him a warning look.
He took heed and turned away, throwing a casual, ‘Is that the kettle I hear?’ over his shoulder as he disappeared up the stairs. The two women shared a wry smile.
Eve breathed in the familiar smell of home, finding comfort that little had changed since her last visit. She fished from her luggage offerings of Aussie favourites such as Timtam biscuits, Moccona coffee, and billy tea, and handed them to her mam to put away; then settled herself onto the battered old chesterfield with a steaming cup of tea and a selection of her favourite biscuits sitting untouched beside her. She was sifting through her old Facebook posts – pictures of her and James’ life together – when her phone rang unexpectedly. It was Emily, her closest friend. They’d grown up together, and Eve’s heart lifted to hear her voice.
‘Welcome back!’ Emily greeted. ‘What took you so long? I told you all the best men are local – you didn’t need to traipse the globe looking for one.’
‘Huh!’ Eve recalled several of her old boyfriends and heartily disagreed. If it wasn’t for one in particular she’d never have gone travelling in the first place.
‘Except for Whiny Wayne, of course,’ Emily continued, with that uncanny knack old friends have of knowing what the other is thinking.
Eve shivered involuntarily. ‘Yes, but let’s not go there.’ Unlike Emily, who had married very happily the previous year, she didn’t have the best track record where men were concerned – but James was different and anyone could see how happy he’d made her.
‘Anyway, enough of all that, I’m just glad you’ve come back home to us at last. So, how are you feeling? Heartbroken? Exhausted?’
‘All of the above.’
‘For what it’s worth, I think you’ve done the right thing.’ Emily of all people understood why she’d made the decision she had. ‘Have you heard from James at all since you came back?’
Eve sighed. That’s what she’d been hoping for when she’d picked up her phone but there was nothing, and the sense of finality made her despondent. A part of her longed for him to pursue her, not to simply have let her go.
‘I’m guessing that’s a no. But it’s a good thing – you said you weren’t gonna text otherwise it’d make the separation harder. He’s sticking to what you agreed.’
‘I know,’ Eve sighed. ‘But it’s as if he’s moved on already when I haven’t even begun to.’
‘Have you contacted him?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Well then he’s probably crying into his can of Fosters right now thinking the exact same thing about you!’
Eve conceded that Emily might have a point, except for the Fosters – most Aussies she’d met hated their national brew, a bit like Geordies and Newcastle Brown Ale.
‘So, enough moping – what are you doing tomorrow?’
‘Nope, you’re not – you’re coming to Tynemouth to have lunch with me and I won’t take no for an answer. I have the day off and a little treat planned for us. You can mope and moan and bore me silly about your lost true love the entire time if you like, but I must warn you – I do have some rather important news of my own.’
Eve was suitably intrigued, but Emily hung up before she had a chance to pry. Perhaps she was pregnant? Whilst she’d be overjoyed if that was the case, she had to suppress a pang of envy that her friends’ lives all seemed to have a sense of direction that hers was currently lacking. Regardless she felt better for the call – the prospect of an afternoon with Emily was something to look forward to, and it might prove to be just the tonic.