Propped at the end on the counter of a cafe where I work first thing in the morning during school holidays, is a copy of my recently published book – a Christmas present from me to the friendly café owner.
Perching at the other end of the counter, I unzip my computer from its sleeve and turn it on. Ping! At that moment a neatly dressed older woman, sitting further down the counter, pulls my book down and opens it. ‘Are you the author of this book?’ she begins. I nod and smile. ‘It’s a lovely book. Where might I be able to buy a copy?’ ‘It’s in most bookshops’, I reply, relieved she seems to like it.
She opens the book to a page-size photo of blonde woman, her baby and a cake on a table, the recipe for which is in the book. ‘Who took this photo?’ the woman with short grey hair and amazingly clean glasses asks. ‘I did’, I reply. ‘It’s of a young woman who ran a café round the corner. She was French I think’.
‘She’s not French’, the woman says quickly. ‘What made you think she was French?’ ‘She had a lovely accent’, I reply. ‘Yes’, the woman agrees. ‘Jess is a lovely girl. But you know she and her husband hoodwinked a lot of people round here. When their café folded and they went back to Sydney, they owed a number of people around here a lot of money.’ And she presses the flat of her hand over the matt image of the young woman holding her baby above a table with a cake on a plate.
The older woman wipes the flat of her hand over the image repeatedly as we speak, as if the paper needs flattening, in a way that suggests I have joined those made gullible by this beautiful blonde girl with her supposed French accent.
‘You know’, the older woman says, leaning down the counter, lowering her voice and pursing her lips. ‘Jess was so charming that a good friend of mine looked after her baby many times. She ended up lending Jess money. Of course my friend never got it back. It was just too wicked’. As she speaks countless tiny lines appear around her mouth, like the lines of a delta seen from above.
‘Oh really’, I reply, fascinated by the tiny lines around the older woman’s mouth. I pause, feeling the need to say something in the young woman’s defence. ‘The older I get’, I say, ‘the more I wonder whether we ever really find out the whole story’. The woman with amazingly clear glasses shakes her head vigorously. ‘Jess deceived so many people’, she says. ‘Just by looking like the model couple that everyone wanted them to be’.
In the older woman’s mind, the beautiful young woman with her husband and baby in the café that went pear-shaped was in the wrong. She wasn’t naive. She wasn’t desperate. She deceived many people knowingly, including this older woman. Including me, apparently.
Unpursing her lips the older woman snaps my book shut, props it against the wall of the counter, returns our conversation to pleasantries, immediately looks ten years younger, picks up her umbrella and leaves.
As I sit at the counter, sipping green tea and glancing at the desktop image of my dog, I feel immensely sad that Jess had to leave this city under a cloud. But even more I am struck by how much younger the older woman had looked before she pursed her lips against Jess for her beauty, her youth and her charm. And how the moment this older woman dropped her charges, her own youth had returned.