‘Can I go out into the garden for a while?’ Lachlan got up from the floor with his little cars tucked into the old lunchbox container he kept them in, his dark eyes bright with hope.
Ashleigh pursed her lips as she thought about it. The garden, though large, was enclosed and the neighbourhood very quiet. The sun was shining, which it hadn’t done properly in days, and she knew that—like most little boys his age—he needed lots of exercise and space.
‘As long as you promise not to go through the side gate to the front; I can check on you while I’m working in this part of the house.’
‘I promise,’ he said solemnly.
A smile found its way to Ashleigh’s mouth and she reached out a hand and ruffled his dark hair. ‘Thanks for being so good this morning. It’s really nice to have some company in this big old house.’
‘Who lives here, Mummy?’ Lachlan asked.
‘No one at the moment,’ she answered, fiddling with a gold shield-shaped bloodstone opening seal. ‘The person who used to live here has…gone.’
‘Did they die?’
It occurred to Ashleigh at that point that Lachlan had recently lost a blood relative, his paternal grandfather. It seemed unfair not to be able to tell her son who had actually lived in this house, when if things had been different he might have visited like any other grandson would have done, maybe even inherited some of the priceless pieces she was documenting.
But telling Lachlan would mean having to reveal the truth to Jake.
She wasn’t ready to tell him and, given what she’d heard earlier that week about his childhood, Jake was nowhere near ready to hear.
‘An old man used to live here,’ she said.
‘All by himself?’ Lachlan asked, giving the imposing library a sweeping glance, his eyes wide with amazement.
‘Yes…but a long time ago he used to live here with someone.’
‘Who was it?’ Lachlan’s voice dropped, the sibilance of his childish whisper making Ashleigh feel slightly spooked.
‘Didn’t he have a mummy too?’
‘Yes…but she…she went away.’ Ashleigh could see the stricken look come into Lachlan’s eyes and wished she hadn’t allowed the conversation to get to that point. As a child a few months off turning four who had grown up thus far without a father, his very worst nightmare was to have something take his mother away as well. She had always done her best to reassure him but still his fear lingered. She could see it in the way he looked at her at times, a wavering nervousness in his dark brown gaze, as if he wasn’t sure if he would ever see her again once she walked out of the door.
She bent down and, tipping up his chin, pressed a soft kiss to the end of his nose. ‘Why don’t you go and explore the garden and in five minutes I’ll join you. I’ll bring out a drink and some fruit just like they do at crèche.’
His small smile brightened his features but did nothing to remove the shadow of uncertainty in his eyes. ‘OK.’
She took his hand and led him back through the house to the back door, watching as he went down the steps with his car collection tucked under one small arm. He went straight to the elm tree, she noticed. The leafy shade was certainly an attraction on such a warm morning but she couldn’t help wondering if it was somehow genetic.
She waited for a while, watching him set out his array of cars on the patches of earth where the lawn had grown threadbare, parking each of them neatly before selecting one to drive up and down the exposed tree root nearest him.
A pair of noisy currawongs passed overhead and a light warm breeze stirred the leaves of the old elm, making each one shiver.
‘I’ll be out to check on you in five minutes, poppet,’ she called out to him.
He didn’t answer, which in a way reassured her. He was happy playing under the tree with the sounds of the birds to keep him company.
After being in the outdoor sunshine it took a moment for Ashleigh’s eyes to adjust when she went back to the library. She took a few photos of some Tunbridge Ware book slides and stands and wrote a few notes about each, unconsciously gnawing the end of her pen as her thoughts gradually drifted to Jake.
She wondered where he was and who he was seeing interstate. She drew in a painful breath as she thought of him with another lover. Over the years she’d forced herself not to think of him in the arms of other women and mostly she’d been successful. She’d been too busy looking after his little son to torture herself with images of leggy blondes, racy redheads or brunettes with the sort of assets that drew men like bees to a paddock full of pollen.