In this shambolic township perched on the edge of the sea wall, the cottages along the waterfront are garlanded with prayer flags and windchimes and studded with mosaics made of shells. Tess thinks the cottages probably started as holiday shacks, but now they are homes for the dreamers, the hippies, the artists and the others who are running from somewhere else and are starting again. Tess is none of these things, but she and Bill retired a year ago and bought one of the cottages on a whim whilst visiting. It is small and white, and a street away from the Esplanade. Because they had never before taken risks or done anything particularly impulsive, Tess still can’t believe they are actually here.
Tess walks along the sea wall most evenings. The breeze from the ocean cools her skin where the sweat of the day has dried and itches and irritates. She likes these cottages; the imperfection of them, the way some of the foundations sink into the ground as if being reclaimed. Dust to dust, and all the rest of it. She likes the tin rooves pocked with rustholes and the overgrown gardens. Too hot to do anything. She and Bill renovated madly for the first few months, until the weather became steamy and intolerable. They sit on their verandah to make the most of the breeze and wait out the wet season. The locals sit along the sea wall with glasses of wine at the end of the day. They wave at Tess and raise their glasses and smile.
Halfway along the Esplanade, there is the house Tess calls the Time Warp House. Not very original, she knows – but what else is there to say? At first, she supposes it is abandoned. Its symmetrical facade is made of peeling, horizontal boards and there are two sets of French doors nailed over with plywood sheets. Against cyclones and thieves, maybe – sealed tight as a drum. Along the front, a narrow verandah runs the width. There are three wooden steps down to the front garden. No lawn, just weeds and a jumble of pebbles and shells and broken paving stones. There is a strange silence in front of the Time Warp House. The ocean hisses and foams beneath the sea wall, but the air seems closed like a vacuum.
One evening when Tess is walking, she is stopped dead in her tracks. She can smell, inexplicably, lemon delicious. Did people still make lemon delicious? She is standing in front of the Time Warp House and the French doors are open like the front of a doll’s house, the rooms inside laid bare. The kitchen has apple-green paintwork and ancient cabinetry. Tess sees battered wooden chairs and a table on which an orange woollen tea-cosy covers, presumably, a teapot. An elderly lady stands by the stove. She wears an apron with a bright paisley pattern and her hair is a fluff of white perm. Her husband is sitting at the table with a newspaper and teacup. The old people look out at Tess. They wave and smile.
There are drifts of dried leaves under Tess’s dining table because there are no insect screens on the windows of the little white house. Bill says screens would stop the sea breeze. Tess used to mind, but doesn’t now. She loves the house fiercely, even the bathroom and toilet which they haven’t got around to renovating yet, and which are outside on the back verandah. At nights during the monsoon, the rain blows in under the corner of the verandah, and Tess goes back to bed with wet feet after a nocturnal visit. It isn’t like the house they used to have, in which they’d lived for over 30 years with an ensuite bathroom within a few steps of the bed. This house is not new, like their first home. This house breathes with other people’s lives.
The night following the lemon delicious, the old lady is cooking a beef stew. Tess stands on the sea wall and somehow knows there are also dumplings. It reminds her of her childhood, and the smell of the school dining hall when she was five. The rest of the houses along the Esplanade smell of lemongrass and curries and oriental spices. The old man rests his hands on his newspaper and nods at Tess. The orange tea-cosy has a bobble on top, and zigzag stripes in Hunter green around its girth. Tess also knows the biscuits in the glass jar will be homemade. She raises her hand and the old man smiles.
She doesn’t see the old people again after that. The next night, and afterwards, the Time Warp house is closed up tight. Although Tess always hopes, the two symmetrical French doors remain boarded tight as a drum.
There is a garage sale at the end of the Esplanade. Trestle tables in the driveway hold piles of ragged books and dented kitchenware. There is a box of LP records and an old rug laid on the grass with some rusty tools and fishing reels. A middle-aged woman in a batik skirt sits on a garden chair with a coffee mug in her lap.
‘Hiya,’ she says to Tess. ‘Nice day for it.’
Tess smiles and sorts through the books. The usual offerings. Stephen King and Harold Robbins and children’s books with Bible stories. She finds a tattered cookbook with a picture of lemon delicious on the cover. It seems to tingle in her hands as she holds it. The woman on the garden chair inclines her head.
‘She used to live here, you know. The woman who wrote that.’
‘Really?’ Without her glasses, Tess cannot make out the author’s name.
‘Torrie Banks,’ the woman says helpfully. ‘They lived down the Esplanade further, at Number 302. She was pretty well known back in the day. For writing cookbooks. But the house is all boarded up now.’
‘They’re back,’ Tess tells her. She holds the book tightly against her chest. ‘I know the house you mean. I saw the lady and her husband – they were there last week.’
‘Nup, that couldn’t have been Mrs Banks.’ The woman shakes her head. ‘She died when I was a kid, but I remember her coming round and having a cuppa with Mum. Funny …’ she tilts her head. ‘They’d sit right about here, where I’m sitting now. Mrs Banks used to bring ginger biscuits in a tin. I remember that, because my brother hated ginger biscuits and used to chuck them over the fence into next door’s pond.’ She smiled fondly. ‘The bugger.’
‘It must have been a relative, then,’ Tess says. ‘The old lady I saw. I saw them two nights running, a lady and man. She was cooking, and he was sitting at the table. ’
The woman shook her head again. ‘Not in that house, love. It’s been boarded up for … geez, probably more than 50 years. Mrs Banks and Harry didn’t have any kids, so Harry lived there by himself for a while after she passed, then I think he went to a retirement home. We thought the house would go up for sale, but it never did. Weird, really.’
‘How much is the book?’ Tess holds it out. ‘I don’t have any money on me at the moment, but I’ll bring it tomorrow.’
‘No worries,’ the woman says. ‘Two dollars? The recipes aren’t very modern. Nobody cooks that kind of stuff anymore. It’s all Jamie Oliver and Nigella, eh?’
It is possible, Tess thinks, that the garage sale woman is talking about a different house. But she isn’t surprised to see the number on the mailbox of the Time Warp House is 302. Still clutching the book to her chest, where she feels her own heart beating against it, she pushes the wire gate open and walks up the path.
Down the left-hand side of the house, Tess picks her way through weeds to a bank of dusty louvres. She puts the book down in order to pile three bricks up and stand on them. She scrubs at the dirty glass with the bottom of her T-shirt and presses her face to the window.
The apple-green cabinetry is covered in dust and the table and chairs can be picked out through dust motes and gloom. Tess sees that the tea- cosy, which had been such a bright orange, is faded and tired and swathed in cobwebs. There is a yellowed newspaper beside it, and a glass biscuit jar. Tess knows the house has not been lived in for a very long time.
Out on the waterfront, the sea is crashing against the sea wall with a relentless beat. Birds wheel overhead, over the rustling palm fronds. Tess sits on a bench with the book in her lap and watches the Time Warp House for a long time, until the day starts to fade away.
It is going to rain. The air smells of ozone and treacle tart and warm custard.