An interrupted phone call and a mysterious disappearance brings a family’s secret past crashing into the present…
Chapter One - Hope
Saturday 8 January 2000, New York
She’d fallen into bed after midnight. People were still caught up in the idea of the new millennium, still coming down from the high of Times Square at midnight and the fireworks displays shown in their televised glory from around the world. Once everyone realised their computers weren’t about to go awry when the clocks safely ticked over from 1999, they were more than happy to party.
Last night Hope had had dinner with some of her closer friends and colleagues—mainly those like herself, with families far away or non-existent. It was a bon voyage dinner, because she was going home to Australia to work on a program there and she didn’t know when she would be back. They’d drunk far too many glasses of red wine, bemoaning the state of a film industry that catered to young men rather than thinking adults, and she had soaked up their sympathy over her recent disastrous effort. It was late when she’d waved them goodbye and set out for her apartment on the Upper West Side.
Even before she’d climbed into the cab, she’d had an uncomfortable sensation deep inside, but it had taken the entire ride home to understand what it was. A mixture of excitement and terror. She was going home. She was about to face her past in a way she hadn’t done for years.
Once inside her apartment, Hope had had the strong urge to ring her older sister, Faith. They were only separated in age by a year, and as children they had been very close. But as they grew older they’d drifted apart—it was difficult not to when they lived on different continents. Hope reminded herself that she would be seeing Faith in a few days anyway. All of the arrangements had been made. Right now, it would be afternoon in Australia, but Faith would probably be busy as usual. How strange that their lives had turned out like this, so far away from each other.
Between thinking of the past and still deciding whether or not to make the international call, she’d fallen asleep.
The sound of the ringing phone shocked her into wakefulness. At first, she didn’t know whether it was real or just a dream and she almost let it ring out, but then she reminded herself that it could be more than someone wanting her to read another dreadful script. It could be important. So she reached for the handset by the bed, at the same time slipping on her glasses.
The illuminated clock told her it was almost two am as she said, ‘Hello?’
There was a sound like waves crashing on a beach. Just static, she told herself, and then she heard Faith’s voice.
Despite having forty-six years to become familiar with it, the idea of sisters called Faith and Hope still made her groan inwardly.
Faith didn’t wait for her answer before launching into a jumble of words. ‘There was a photo in the newspaper, that one of all of us. You, me, Mum and Sam. Taken ages ago. When you first went to America and Golden Gully came out to send you off. Do you remember? They’ve just reprinted it because you’re coming home. It’s everywhere. I never thought … never imagined … All these years.’
Hope pulled herself up against her pillows and switched on the bedside light. That was better, she was feeling more awake now.
‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘Has something happened to Joe? To Samantha? Is Mum all right?’
Faith made a sound that could have been a laugh, or a sob. ‘Do you know you’re the only one who calls her that? Samantha. She’s always been Sam to us.’
‘Faith,’ Hope paused, knowing it was important to sound calm despite her heart rattling about in her chest. ‘You haven’t rung me for ages and now it’s the middle of the night, and you’re telling me that I’m the only one who calls your daughter by her full name?’
That silence again, or rather the sound of the waves of static crashing over the distance between them. Hope tried to picture Faith’s house. She hadn’t been home for nearly ten years and then only briefly, but she remembered the little nook off the lounge, where the phone was situated. It would be summer there, afternoon, and outside the summer sun would be blazing. The house would be closed up to keep out the heat, shades drawn and the light muted.
‘What is it?’ she said again. ‘Tell me what’s wrong. Faith?’
‘I was remembering the Angel. I still think about it you know.’
‘The Angel? Faith, what—’
‘I had to go.’ Her sister’s words ran into each other. ‘You see that, don’t you? I had to go. It’s up to me to fix this.’
But by then the call was disconnected.
Hope sat and stared at the shadowy corners of her bedroom, and then slowly returned the handset to the cradle. She waited a little while, in case her sister rang back and explained it was all a mistake and she was sorry to have frightened her. Because Hope was frightened.
Suddenly she was cold to her very core.
Shivering, she climbed out of bed and found her address book and then she tapped in Faith Cantani’s number.
It rang for some time before finally someone answered.
‘Joe?’ She spoke quickly as soon as she heard his familiar voice. ‘Joe, it’s Hope.’
He drew a breath. ‘Hope?’
‘Faith just rang me. Can you put her back on please? I—I don’t quite understand what she wanted.’
There was a pause. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and she could hear the break in his voice. ‘Faith left yesterday and I haven’t seen her since.’
‘Left? What do you mean, Joe? She was just on the phone!’
‘Well, she wasn’t ringing from here.’
Hope took off her glasses. ‘Where is she, then? I need to call her back.’
‘I don’t know her number.’
He seemed to be unable to explain himself. He sounded very tired. Through further questioning, Hope managed to discover the sequence of events. Faith had been preoccupied. ‘The new range of Cantani Desserts she has coming out this month. You know about that?’
Hope did know. Faith had sent her a sample, which had caused endless issues with US Customs. She’d agreed, if her schedule allowed, to be at the unveiling.
‘And then with you coming home … well, she was busy redecorating.’
‘What happened yesterday before she left?’
‘Hope … she’ll be back before you get here, I know she will. Just leave it, please. Whatever it is … Everything will be okay.’
‘What happened, Joe?’
He sighed, and at first she didn’t think he was going to answer. ‘She took an interstate phone call at the shop and the girls said she looked upset.’
He was upset.
‘Who was the call from?’
‘It was a man. She didn’t mention his name.’
She waited a beat, trying to understand and not understanding at all. ‘And then …?’ She wanted him to elaborate on Faith’s mood, but instead he went sideways.
‘There was a dinner we were meant to attend. Best local business awards. We were nominated. I don’t even know who won.’ He took a moment; she could hear him breathing. ‘I, uh, I went to get my suit from the dry cleaners and when I got back she was gone.’
‘Just … gone?’
‘She left a note. It was a bit of a scrawl. I was away twenty minutes.’
Hope waited and eventually he told her what the note said.
‘Sorry. I need to go and fix this. Hope you can understand. Forgive me.’
Hope tried to imagine her sister frantically throwing clothes into a bag, grabbing her purse and running from the house. All to avoid Joe so she could ‘fix this’? Why couldn’t she tell him? Had something happened between them that prevented her from telling her husband of thirty years where she was going and why?
‘Did you argue?’
‘No, we didn’t bloody argue.’ For the first time he sounded angry. And yet it was a reasonable question. Faith and Joe had been known to argue now and again, but they always made up. Joe was such an ocean of calm that even Faith, with her set ideas on how things should be handled, eventually gave way.
‘After she’d gone I tried to ring her mobile, until I discovered she’d left it behind at the shop. She’d taken her car so I drove around, nowhere in particular, because I didn’t know what else to do.’
‘Joe, I don’t understand. Explain to me what is going on.’
‘Don’t you think I would if I could?’ There was a bleakness in his voice that was frightening. Then, abruptly, ‘What did she say to you? Just now, on the phone? What did she say?’
Hope tried to gather her thoughts, which were jumping about all over the place. ‘She mentioned the Angel. The nightclub she worked at all those years ago.’
‘The Angel.’ It was a whisper, a breath. A curse.
‘When she came back home she wasn’t the same, Joe. I remember that much. Something happened to her.’
The truth was Hope hadn’t been in any state to find out the details of whatever secrets her sister was keeping from her. She’d had her own secrets.
Joe was still waiting on the other end of the phone.
‘I’m coming over,’ Hope said.
‘I know. That television show you’re making.’
‘Looking Back.’ It was an Australian program focusing on well-known people in the public eye, exploring both the nature and nurture that had moulded them into who they were. Or at least that was the premise. As an Australian actress who’d done well overseas, Hope Taylor fitted the bill. She had agreed to it because: one, she needed the money, and two, she was anticipating it would bring her more work. Until now, number three, visiting Australia and seeing her family, had seemed a long way down the list. Strange how a family crisis changed your perspective.
And if Looking Back, a little like some of the sleazier gossip magazines, had a habit of shocking its viewers with previously undisclosed information, at least their researchers were professionals. They would hardly sully the program’s reputation by telling lies. Hope already had a few ideas for her own ‘revelations’. Harmless stuff really. She told herself she was comfortable that they wouldn’t dig up anything on her she didn’t want aired. Mainly because all of her secrets were too deeply buried and they wouldn’t know where to start digging.
‘I’m flying in to Melbourne on the twelfth, yes, but I can come now, Joe. Or as soon as I can get a flight and organise what I need to.’
She waited for him to protest. It took him longer than she’d expected.
‘No, don’t change your plans. Faith will be back by then. To— to explain. Everything will be back to normal.’ He said it as if he wanted to believe it.
‘Faith knows you’re coming, and then there’s the unveiling … It’ll sort itself out. It has to.’
She promised to let him know when she was on her way, and he promised to ring her if he heard any news.
By the time she hung up Hope was wide awake. She sat a moment, abruptly aware of the chilly atmosphere of her apartment—the furnace in the basement had broken down again. She should have asked Joe more questions, but it was all so strange she hadn’t known what to ask. And what on earth was that note about? Maybe Joe knew what was going on and maybe he didn’t. He was so intensely loyal to his wife that it was difficult for Hope to tell.
She tried to remember all that Faith had said, going over the words and the pauses between them, wondering if she’d forgotten anything crucial. Her sister had mentioned a photograph, taken years ago, reprinted because Hope was coming home.
She told herself it made no sense, but she knew that somehow it did. The Angel. Something had happened while Faith was there, just as something had happened to Hope that hot January afternoon thirty years ago in Willow Tree Bend.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Willow Tree Bend by Kaye Dobbie!
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