The breakfast buffet should have been my idea of heaven, but lack of sleep, the blistering heat and the endless travelling, had made me feel like crap.
I followed Cillian as he headed past the vast array of food, and watched as he piled his plate with bacon, eggs, mushrooms, black pudding and sausages. He stopped at some fried bread triangles. ‘Nice,’ he said, nodding approvingly. He picked up several pieces with tongs. ‘Don’t mind if I do.’ He turned to see me behind him, carrying a banana.
‘It could be a long day, Isaac,’ he said. ‘You really need to keep your pecker up, mate. Look at this stuff, and it’s all free.’
‘It’s hardly free,’ I muttered, as he put four slices of bread into the toaster.
I’d never seen a man devour food as quickly as Cillian, and less than an hour later, we’d picked up a hire car, and were heading away from the main tourist area of Sydney, along the M4 towards Emu Plains.
I could tell as soon as we pulled up outside the bungalow where The Prowess of the Blues ran their business from, that it was in need of maintenance. It stood some distance from the road, an expanse of dried grass stretched out in front of it.
‘It’s not how I imagined,’ I said as we climbed from the car and headed up the path. Although, in truth, I hadn’t been sure what I’d expected to find.
There was a closed sign on the door.
‘Do you think we’re in the right place?’ said Cillian, wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand as he looked around. ‘It’s so quiet.’
The premises had a rustic feel, and I noticed a minibus parked at the side of the bungalow. I imagined my parents there. Dad excited about the opportunity to explore areas where tourists had never been before. An experience he would have hoped to write about later.
I peered in through a bay-fronted window at the front of the bungalow, my hand forming a bridge over my eyes to block out the sun. I could just make out a desk, a chair, photographs on the wall of groups of people; half empty shelves holding souvenir cups and pens. ‘It looks deserted,’ I said, stating the obvious.
A young couple walked by, hand in hand, her infectious giggle breaking the hot, still air. A sudden surge of traffic filled the road, as if lights had changed to green somewhere. Within moments it was quiet again.
‘Let’s go around the back,’ said Cillian, heading off. A high, padlocked double-gate prevented us access. ‘I can give you a leg over, if you like.’
I laughed. ‘I’m hoping you mean leg up.’
‘That’s the one.’ He smiled and crouched, cupping his hands.
‘What if they have guard dogs?’ I sounded like a wimp.
‘They’ll bite you.’
‘Do you think?’
‘Isaac, do you want to find your mum, or not?’
I stepped into his hands, closing my eyes as he sprung me upwards, and ended up spread-eagled on the top of the gate, like I’d straddled a horse.
‘Are there any dogs?’ Cillian called.
I opened one eye and then the other. The rear of the bungalow was also deserted. The fences were high, the grass dry, and there was a shed at the foot of the garden. ‘Just a pack of dingoes,’ I said, trying to be funny. I glanced at the ground, unsure how to get down the other side, or for that matter, how I was going to get back up again if I dropped.
‘Christ, get down, Isaac.’ Cillian grabbed my leg and tugged. ‘Someone’s coming.’
‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ It was a middle-aged woman with short, brown hair. Her hands were placed on rather large hips, encased in a pink tracksuit. ‘Should you be up there, young man?’ she said, lifting her sunglasses and squinting at me.
‘He’s testing it,’ said Cillian.
‘Yes, that’s it exactly. I’m an official gate tester, sent from the government.’ I glared at Cillian.
‘And it appears,’ he went on, eyes towards the sky, ‘to be of an adequate strength to hold a six foot man, so our job here is done.’
‘Get down,’ the woman said with a snippy tone, pointing at the ground with her finger.
‘Help me, Cillian,’ I whimpered, the pain of wood on testicles getting to me. He did as I asked, and I landed on the ground like Bambi.
The woman pursed her lips. ‘I’m Mary. I live next door,’ she said, softening her tone. ‘You’re lucky I didn’t call the cops. Although I suppose you look harmless enough. She eyed Cillian’s waistcoat. ‘And I’ve always had a soft spot for a man in leather.’
‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’ she asked with a smile.
I shook my head. ‘No thanks. We’re just looking for my mum.’ I brushed wood shavings from my T-shirt. ‘She came here about two weeks ago. Her name’s Kate…’
‘Ah, yes, I remember Kate.’
‘You do?’ My heart started racing. ‘Do you know where she is?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t.’ She tapped her lips three times. ‘She came here, like you, looking through the windows, although she didn’t perform somersaults on the gate.’ She paused for a moment, before adding smugly, ‘I tend to keep an eye on the area.’
‘Ah, you’re a busy…’ Cillian began, ‘lady.’
‘I am indeed. I came out and invited her for coffee and cake, but she declined.’
‘Do you know anything about this tour company?’ Cillian asked, gesturing at the bungalow.
‘A bit,’ she said. ‘It’s run by Aaron Raymond and his younger sister, Lisa. Such a lovely young man, his parents’ pride and joy – couldn’t put a foot wrong in their eyes. The parents died in a car crash last May, leaving them the bungalow and the business – but between you and me.’ She leaned forward. ‘I’m not sure he has the knowhow to organise tours like his parents once did. In fact, a man died up there not so long ago.’ Her eyes flicked from Cillian to me. ‘And now I come to think about it, Aaron spoke to your mum the day she came snooping.’ She thought for a moment. ‘But then I had to go out, so I missed the next instalment,’ she finished, as though talking about a soap opera.
A silver Mercedes pulled onto the grass, and braked sharply. ‘Speak of the devil,’ Mary said. ‘Looks like you’re in luck. That’s Aaron Raymond now.’
A tall, slim man with red hair, and strikingly blue eyes, got out of the car. ‘Hi, Mary,’ he said, raising his hand. ‘Loving your new hair-do.’
‘Why thank you, Aaron,’ she said, touching her hair. ‘You little charmer, you.’ She approached him, and we followed. ‘Got a couple of guys here looking for Kate.’
‘Kate?’ he said, looking puzzled. He pressed his key fob, and the car locked with a clunk. ‘Kate who?’
‘She came here just over a week ago, Aaron. Remember? She was snooping round. You chatted with her.’
‘Ah, yes. Sorry I didn’t recognise the name for a minute there. Yes, I remember Kate.’ He headed for the house, and we fell in step behind him.
‘Right, I’ll love you and leave you,’ Mary said, raising her hand and making an exit across the grass, and into her house.
‘Why did Kate came here to see you?’ I asked Aaron.
‘Can’t rightly recall, if I’m honest,’ he said, pausing at the front door and fiddling with his keys. ‘A lot’s happened since then.’
A young woman appeared from round the side of the bungalow. ‘Lisa,’ Aaron said. ‘These guys are looking for Kate. Remember she turned up a while back?’
The woman with the same red hair, in two long plaits, nodded. ‘Ah, yes. She wanted to know if we could point her in the direction of another couple who’d been on the same tour as her, if my memory serves me right.’ She smiled, flicking her plaits over her shoulders. ‘She said something about wanting to meet up with them again.’ She looked straight at me, narrowing her eyes. ‘Sorry, who are you, exactly?’
‘I’m Kate’s son,’ I said. I looked from brother to sister. They both had the same sprinkling of freckles across their noses, the same eyes. They were friendly enough, but I couldn’t help thinking if they hadn’t organised the tour and taken risks, my dad would still be here, and I wouldn’t be searching half of Australia for my mum. ‘My dad died on the mountain.’
‘Oh God,’ Aaron said, as though everything had fallen into place, his eyes widening. ‘I see now. I’m so sorry for your loss. I know what it’s like to lose a parent.’
‘Me too,’ Lisa said. ‘But then if he’d only stayed on the right path with Aaron, he would still be here today.’
I couldn’t think of a comeback that was adequate without swearing.
‘Why not come in for a minute?’ she went on, as Aaron finally opened the door. ‘I’ll give you the couple’s name and address. You’ll probably find your mum with them.’
We walked through a dated, grubby kitchen, and into the lounge I’d seen earlier through the window.
Lisa grabbed a folder and began flicking through it.
I scanned the room, taking in the framed photographs on the wall. They were mainly of Aaron, holding cups and medals, and in most of the pictures an older, proud-looking couple stood either side of him. His parents, I deduced. My eyes landed on an unframed picture of my parents huddled in a group. Mum and Dad were smiling, while Aaron stood in the middle and a man and woman - maybe the couple my mum was searching for - were the other side of Aaron. I tugged the picture from the wall, and Aaron looked up.
‘Oh, that,’ he said. ‘I always take photographs before we leave for the tours, run off a copy for us and one for the tourists. Lisa sends out more if required later. Just a small memento.’
‘And a way to make extra money,’ Cillian said with an edge.
Aaron stared at him and then at me. ‘You’re welcome to keep the picture if you like. No charge.’
‘So this couple,’ I said, folding the picture and stuffing it in my pocket. ‘Do you know anything about them?’
‘Well, we should do,’ said Lisa, still flicking through the folder, ‘but their name and address seems to have gone AWOL. But I definitely gave the details to your mother, I remember that much.’
Aaron’s eyes were trained on her now, his arms folded across his body.
‘Sadly, my admin skills are pretty rubbish,’ she went on, putting the folder back on the shelf and pulling another free and scanning it.
Five minutes later she’d been through all the files. ‘I’m sorry. Their names were Sue and Derek Blake, and they were from Sydney, but that’s all I remember.’
‘Well thanks for trying,’ I said, at a loss for what else to say. ‘Let me give you my mobile number. Call me if you find it. Please.’
‘Yeah, yeah, goes without saying,’ she said. ‘I hope you find her. I’m sure she’s fine.’