(Copyright 1999)

Green didn't suit Oriana, Jake decided. As if it should have, just because she was Irish. Six years in Japan had changed her; she wore her black hair cut short in a bob and made up her face in the simple yet meticulous manner of a Tokyo office-lady. She favoured smart two-piece suits and rarely wore anything but low-heeled square-toed shoes to work.

Japan had changed her in other ways too, enough for her to return to Australia to lick her wounds and try to forget the man whose name her friends could not pronounce properly. She told Jake this, and many other things, after her fifth drink in the main bar at Dooleys on St Patrick's Day. It was odd she should confide in Jake, as was the fact he was in the bar at all. It was not something he normally did, heading off to the pub on a Friday night after work, but it had been a long week and the thought of going home to his empty house had held less appeal than usual.

"Satsukawa Katsuragi," she said, pronouncing it slowly. "Satsukawa. Katsuragi. That was his name." Her other words were slurred with the effects of the alcohol, but she managed the name perfectly.

"I'll take your word for it," Jake replied. "I'm hopeless at foreign languages - I even have trouble with English, half the time." He drained the last of his Guinness and signaled to the bartender for a refill. Oriana ordered another whisky too, even though the glass in her hand was still half full. Apparently, she wasn't intending to go anywhere in a hurry.

It became hot and stuffy in the bar. The air conditioning was struggling to keep the packed, smoke-filled room at a comfortable temperature. Jake removed his tie, and shoved it in the pocket of his jacket. Oriana undid the top button of her green blouse and flapped the lapels in an attempt to cool herself. Jake noticed a small gold cloverleaf hanging around her neck on a chain.

"Good luck charm?" he asked, pointing at it.

"S'posed to be," she replied, with a lopsided smile. "My nanna gave it to me when I was six - when my family left Ireland. My brother got grandfather's bagpipes so I think I got the better deal."

Jake shrugged. "I kind of like bagpipes. Celtic images of misty battlefields, brave bloody deeds and all that. Maybe I've got some Irish in me."

"Everybody's Irish on St Pat's day," Oriana said, raising her glass to clink against his in a toast.

By midnight, Jake knew he had to go home. He was too old for an all-nighter; he was dead tired and all he wanted to do was stretch out in his big old four-poster bed. When he began to say goodbye to Oriana, he saw that she was well past making any coherent reply. He looked around for some of her friends from work, but they had all drifted off hours ago to various nightclubs. He realised that he couldn't just leave her there and considered his options. There weren't too many.

By the time the taxi pulled up outside his house, Oriana was deeply asleep. Her head was resting against his shoulder and her lipstick had made a crimson smudge on his jacket sleeve. He had to ask the cab driver to help half-carry her up the long pathway to his front door. Jake gave the scowling driver a ten-dollar tip for his trouble.

Once inside, there was no need to preserve Oriana's public dignity, so he simply hoisted her limp body over his shoulder and carried her into the bedroom. He lowered her onto the bed and slipped off her shoes. He wondered for a moment if he should remove her blouse and skirt, but decided that would be just too hard to explain in the morning. He was already beginning to have second thoughts; tomorrow could prove to be quite awkward.

Jake looked down at Oriana, lying sprawled across the doona. She was not so much asleep as unconscious. He rolled her on her side and tried to rearrange her arms and legs in a reasonably comfortable position. She smelled of smoke and whisky and sweat. The cloverleaf charm on the gold chain around her neck lay against the soft curve of her left breast. When he turned out the light, he could still see it glinting in the light from the moon streaming through the large bay-window.

He woke up at eight-thirty the next morning, feeling reasonably refreshed and blissfully free of any significant hangover. The sofa-bed in the study was surprisingly comfortable, although his long legs hung off the end of the mattress. Jake looked in on Oriana; she was still asleep. He had a long shower, luxuriating in the steaming hot jets of water, and got dressed. He couldn't face the thought of anything to eat, but made a large pot of strong coffee.

Jake had retrieved the Saturday paper from the bushes - where the paperboy consistently threw it - and was halfway through the features section when Oriana made her appearance. She didn't look good, but she didn't look that bad either. Not a bad as she should have, all said and done. She stood in the kitchen doorway looking at him. He indicated the coffee pot with a nod of his head. "Coffee?"

"I'd kill for a shower first."

"Feel free. The main bathroom's at the end of the hall or there's the ensuite off the bedroom; take your pick. Your handbag is on the side table in the hall."

"Thanks." She ran her fingers through her tousled hair "Look, about last night..."

Jake pushed back his chair and stood up. "Have a shower first, then we can talk, if you want. I'll grab you some clean towels."

Oriana was in the bathroom long enough for him to finish reading the paper, and drink the pot of coffee. He was standing at the stove, preparing a fresh pot when she returned, toweling her hair dry and wearing a pale blue silk robe.

"I hope you don't mind; I borrowed your robe. It was hanging over the back of the door."

Jake shrugged. "It's not mine. I don't use that bathroom much."

"I guessed some of the stuff in the wall cabinet wasn't yours." Oriana sat down at the table, draping the wet towel over the back of her chair. "Ex-wife or ex-girlfriend?"

"Something like that," Jake said. He brought the coffee to the table. "Cup or bowl? For your coffee."

"Bowl?" she queried.

"A habit I picked up in France. Years ago."

"Don't you burn your fingers?"

"You get used to it. You get used to anything, eventually."

"I'll stick to a cup, thanks."

Jake poured her a cup of coffee and topped up his bowl.

Oriana took a deep breath. "Anyway, about last night. I hope I didn't say... or do anything I shouldn't have." She sipped her coffee, holding the cup in both of her hands. "I can't remember much except getting into a taxi with you."

Jake smiled. "I was a bit worried people would think I was abducting you. Actually, all I did was make sure you had a bed to sleep in. Alone. And I should be apologising to you; I had no right to assume you couldn't look after yourself."

Oriana frowned. "Are you taking the piss out of me?"

It was Jake's turn to frown. "No, why would I?"

"Look Jake, I remember enough to know I was well past looking after anything, let alone myself. I know we work for the same company, but you really don't know me from a bar of soap. Yet you made sure I didn't end up choking in my own vomit in the gutter. And now you're trying to apologise."

"Sorry. I guess the nightclub scene now is a bit different from my time. I thought you were supposed to take care of your mates when you went out drinking."

Oriana smiled "You are taking the piss out of me, aren't you?"

Jake grinned. "No, I'm not. Really." He glanced at his watch. "Look, I'm sorry to seem an ungracious host, but I have to go shopping this morning or I'm going to starve for the rest of the week. Can I drop you off somewhere after you've finished your coffee?"

"No, thanks; I'll be fine. I'll get a taxi home. I've caused you enough trouble already. Um... where am I anyway?"

"New Farm. Down by the river." He pointed out the kitchen window. It's over there; about two streets away. I usually catch the ferry to work. Where do you live?"

"Out Gaythorne way. I'm renting a townhouse there."

"Well, I can still drive you home, if you like."

"No, really, I'll be fine. I just need half an hour or so to recover a bit. Then I'll grab a cab."

There was an awkward silence. Jake looked at his watch again. "Ok, I'll tell you what; I'm going to head off now. You're welcome to hang around a bit. When you're ready, call yourself a cab. The address is twelve Arbarth Street. Just pull the front door shut when you leave."

Oriana cocked her head to one side. "You're a trusting soul, aren't you?"

Jake stood up and looked around. "Why, what are you planning to do; trash the place?" He indicated the refrigerator. "Feel free to have something to eat if you get your appetite back."

Jake was gone quite a few hours. The shopping centre was more crowded than usual and he had to park his car out in the street. He queued for fifteen minutes in the delicatessen and, as usual, Mrs Jackson at the greengrocers had to tell him all the neigbourhood gossip. On the way back home, he suddenly remembered that he had to pick up a parcel from the post office, which took him another half an hour.

By the time Jake drove his old Alfa Romeo convertible back into the garage, it was mid afternoon. He carried his groceries into the kitchen and deposited them on the table. He noticed that Oriana had washed up the breakfast things before she left; the cup and bowl were arranged neatly side by side on the bench and the coffee pot was standing upside down on the draining board. Jake packed away the groceries and made himself a late lunch of bread, cheese and olives.

After he'd eaten, Jake went into the bedroom. The bed was neatly made and the robe Oriana had worn was draped over the bay-window seat. A faint trace of perfume lingered in the air. He went down the hallway to the bathroom and opened the door. Damp towels hung over the shower rail and the last few droplets of condensate were still visible on the wall mirror. Jake pulled down the towels and wadded them into a bundle to take to the laundry. As he turned to leave, something glinting on the floor caught his attention. He bent down and picked up Oriana's cloverleaf charm.

"Not much of a good luck charm, after all," Jake muttered to himself.

It was the next Wednesday before Jake had a chance to return the jewelry to Oriana. Monday was taken up with client meetings and on Tuesday he had to fly to Melbourne for a conference. As it turned out, on Wednesday Oriana tracked him down first. She appeared in his office doorway waving a paper bag in the air.

"Hi there," she said. "I brought you some morning tea to say thanks again. I hope you like blueberry muffins."

"My favourite," Jake lied. "And I've got something for you too." He opened his briefcase and fished out an envelope containing Oriana's cloverleaf. "You must have dropped it on the bathroom floor."

She took the offered envelope and opened it. "Oh, wow. Thanks. I thought I'd lost it in the pub." She fastened the chain around her neck again.

"I'm afraid I hung around your place a bit longer than I planned," Oriana said. "You've got such a beautiful house. It feels so cosy and comfortable. I sat out in your back garden under the Jacaranda tree for an hour just listening to the birds."

"Yes," said Jake. "It's nice out there this time of year."

"And your study; I've never seen so many books before, except in... well, except in a library."

"Sounds like you had a good look around," Jake said, smiling.

Oriana blushed. 'I'm sorry, you must think I'm terrible; snooping around like that."

"No, just naturally curious. Don't worry, if I had any bodies hidden in the cupboard, I wouldn't have left you alone there."

Oriana glanced at her watch. "Well, I'd better get back to work or I'll get in trouble. Anyway, thanks again."

"You're welcome. I'll see you around."

And that was the end of the matter, or so Jake assumed. Occasionally, he would bump into Oriana at work and they would exchange a few pleasantries, but other than that they had little cause to cross paths. Jake's life returned to its routine of long working weeks punctuated by short weekends when he would tend his garden or invite a few old friends over for a relaxed Sunday brunch. Spring turned into Summer and the days grew hotter as Christmas approached.

Early in December, there was a week of unusually warm weather, with seven days of the steaming hot temperatures usually reserved for January. On the Saturday night, Jake lay awake in bed, unable to sleep in the oppressive heat and listening to the grandfather clock in the hall chime softly every hour. Outside, it was if the city itself was restless in the heat and the night was filled with the sound of traffic, squabbling neighbours and the occasional mournful clatter of a train far off to the north.

Suddenly, Jake heard a sound he recognised as the garden gate grinding open on its rusty hinges. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. He picked up his wristwatch from the bedside table and squinted at it in the gloom; it showed twenty minutes past twelve.

Jake made his way down the hallway and into the kitchen. Leaving the room light turned off, he peered out the back window overlooking the garden. In the darkness he could just make out the shape of a person lying on the lawn. It sounded like they were singing. He unlocked the back door and cautiously stepped out onto the back landing. At the sound of the door opening, the figure on the grass sat up. With a start, Jake recognised Oriana.

"H'lo, Jake," she said. "You've got a beautiful lawn. So soft."

Jake felt a flush of annoyance, but then saw that anything he said would be wasted on Oriana. She was swaying gently from side to side and her eyes were half shut in dreamy intoxication. He walked down the short flight of stairs and over to Oriana to help her to her feet, She leant heavily against him and he steadied her with a hand firmly around her waist.

'How on earth did you get here?" he asked, half to himself and not really expecting an answer.

"Jus' followed my nose," Oriana replied, trying to touch her nose with her index finger and missing her face entirely.

"Let's get you inside; you're a mess. You've got more booze on you than in you."

He managed to get her to the back steps, half dragging, half carrying her before she threw up. Most of it went over herself, but he received his fair share.

"Oh, great," Jake muttered. "This is going to be fun."

An hour later Oriana was asleep in his bed. He had propped her up under the shower fully clothed, which revived her enough to finish the job of cleaning up unaided. By the time she had toweled herself dry, however, she was wilting again and Jake guided her into the bedroom where she collapsed in a towel-wrapped heap on the bed. He left her snoring softly and returned to the bathroom to retrieve the sodden mass of her clothes from the shower and throw them into the laundry tub to soak, before having a shower himself.

Jake felt wide awake now so he went into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of cold water from the jug in his refrigerator. He went out and sat on the back stairs for a while, sipping the water and staring up at the stars. The neighbour's ginger cat was prowling across the lawn and it stopped in mid-stride to glare at him before continuing on and disappearing through a gap caused by a broken paling in the fence. Jake noticed a dark shape on the lawn and it took a moment until he realised it was Oriana's handbag lying where she'd dropped it.

Oriana woke before Jake did the next morning. He had eventually dozed off on the sofa in his study; his weariness finally overcoming the heat and humidity. The unaccustomed sounds of someone clattering around in his kitchen brought him back to consciousness and he slowly opened one eye, then the other. He closed them again.

"Good morning, Jake. Fancy an omelet?"

He opened his eyes again. Oriana was standing in the doorway, with a spatula in her hand. She had obviously rummaged through more than his kitchen drawers because she was wearing one of his T-shirts.

"Sorry," she said, noting his glance. 'I had to wear something; it seems my clothes are soaking in the laundry tub."

"Uh huh," Jake replied and sat up, rubbing the back of his neck. "Your handbag is on the dining room table, by the way."

"Thanks. So, how about some breakfast then? I've already got the coffee made."

"I wouldn't have thought you'd be up for it, considering the condition you were in last night."

Oriana shrugged. "I guess I got it out of my system."

Jake got up from the sofa. "Don't remind me." He brushed past her and walked across to the bathroom. He splashed cold water over his face to revive himself, then padded back down the hallway to the kitchen.

Oriana was pouring coffee into one of his china bowls with one hand while holding a skillet with the other. The table was set with plates and cutlery.

"See, I remembered about the bowl," she said brightly. She expertly slid an omelet onto a plate and returned the skillet to the stove.

Jake picked up his coffee, added three heaped spoons of sugar and stirred it thoughtfully as Oriana sat down at the table and started eating her eggs. He tapped the teaspoon on the edge of his bowl four times then laid it on the side of his plate.

"Good coffee," he said after the first sip. "By the way, would it be too much for me to ask why were you sneaking around my backyard at midnight?"

Oriana paused with a forkful of omelet halfway to he mouth. "I wasn't sneaking. Your gate is really noisy; I'm sure half the neighbourhood heard me open it."

"Sorry; I'll rephrase the question. What were you doing in my backyard at midnight?"

Oriana stopped eating and laid her fork on the table. She looked Jake directly in the eyes. "I was out drinking in the city with some friends. We got loaded, we started arguing, they split. I didn't have anywhere else to go, so I got a taxi here."

She picked up her fork and started eating again.

Jake looked at her over the rim of his bowl. "Right; now it's all crystal clear - except for one point. Why didn't you have anywhere to go?"

"I was staying with one of the people I argued with. I'm off to London in two days time and they were putting me up until my flight leaves."


"Yep. I quit the company last week. I've go a job lined up in London - at least for the next six months. Then I thought I might travel a bit."


"Thanks." Oriana laid her knife and fork across her empty plate leant back in her chair.

"So, now where are you going to stay until your flight?" asked Jake. "And can I drive you there?"

"Dressed like this?" She indicated the T-shirt. "Actually, I was wondering if maybe I could stay here. It's only until Tuesday, then I'm out of your hair for good."

For a moment, Jake was speechless. Finally, he found his voice. "Well, I'd like to help, Oriana, but.."

"I can pay you rent."

"That's got nothing to do with it," Jake replied. "For one thing, I haven't really got the room and for another..."

"I can sleep on the sofa in the study," Oriana said. "It's only for a couple of nights."

After ten minutes of his protests and Oriana's rebuttals, Jake slumped in defeat. "What about your luggage?"

"I travel light," said Oriana. "Most of what I own are clothes and little souvenirs, which I sent off by surface mail last month. What's left I can live without - I always carry my passport with me. Provided you've got a few more T-shirts and a toothbrush I can borrow, I'll survive - it's a bit like camping."

And so Oriana stayed. She actually proved to be an ideal guest, placing few demands on Jake and seeming content to spend the rest of the afternoon dozing under the Jacaranda tree or sifting through the collection of books in his study. When Jake arrived home from work the next day, he half expected Oriana to have disappeared, but she was still there. He found her lounging on the sofa in his study, immersed in one of his books.

"Hi," she said, without looking up. "Lilly dropped in today to borrow your old typewriter - don't know why she wanted it, 'tho. Do you make it a habit of giving out your housekeys to any woman you meet? This book is very good, by the way."

Jake sighed. "Lilly's a very good friend. We've known each other for ages. We look out for each other. She's got the spare set of keys for my car too, if you must know."

"Yes, she's nice. And very pretty. I like her. Most women would have freaked at walking into their man's place and finding another woman wearing nothing but one of his T-shirts. I can see why you trust her."

Jake smiled. "I'm not 'her man'. Believe me, Lilly's sworn off men for the rest of her life; she tolerates me because I'm the only one she can't beat in an argument. She stays over occasionally if we've been out to the theatre together; you're taking her place on the sofa-bed, you know." He looked thoughtful. "She probably wanted the typewriter for a display in her shop; she has a gift shop in town with cards and dolls and teddy bears and stuff."

"Anyway, she said she'd phone you later tonight." Oriana laid the book face-down over the arm of the chair and stood up. "Now, as part payment for my lodging, I'll cook dinner this evening."

Jake was dubious. "Um... can you cook anything other than omelets?"

"Of course. Don't worry, Lilly gave me precise instructions for your favourite dish. We had a good talk, Lilly and I," Oriana said. She paused at the doorway and looked at Jake over her shoulder. "Oh, and by the way, she lets you win the arguments."

On Tuesday morning, he drove Oriana to the airport to catch her flight to London. She had on the clothes she had been wearing when he found her lying in his yard, now clean and freshly pressed. The airline clerk was suspicious when Oriana said she had no luggage to check in, but he validated her ticket and they made their way to the departure lounge.

Jake said an awkward goodbye. "Well, good luck then," he said, not quite sure whether he should give her a hug, shake her hand or what.

Oriana solved the issue but giving him a fierce hug and kissing him on the lips. He caught the scent of his own deodorant she had used after showering that morning.

"Thanks, Jake. You've been wonderful. You're a pretty special guy, you know. Take care of yourself."

"You too."

Jake watched her walk through the departure gate and disappear into Customs. He made his way back to the carpark and drove home, parking the Alfa in his garage. He walked down to the river to catch a ferry in to work. While he waited on the pontoon for the next ferry to arrive, he watched an aircraft climb over the city and head south, shading his eyes from the sun's glare. For a moment he wondered if it was Oriana's, but then he realised it was flying in the wrong direction.

It was several months before he heard from Oriana again. A small parcel arrived in the mail postmarked London. He unwrapped it to find a slim volume of eighteenth-century sonnets. Inside the front cover was written a brief note from Oriana; "Thanks again Jake - read these to Lilly."

This set the pattern for the next two years; small packages would arrive every couple of months from various parts of Europe, usually containing books, but occasionally a small gift for Lilly. More often than not, the books were copies of those he already had, but Oriana would manage to make them somehow special - Hemingway's A Moveable Feast marked with a Kilometre Zero stamp from Shakespeare and Company; Votaire's Candide purchased from Geneva where the author had been living at the time of publication; and even a tattered copy of Steppenwolf, autographed by Hesse himself.

Then the parcels stopped coming. Lilly wasn't concerned. "Don't worry, she'll turn up," she assured him.

As usual, Lilly was right. One Sunday afternoon, Jake returned home from the garden shop to find Oriana sitting on the seat under the Jacaranda tree. He dropped the bag of fertilizer he had been balancing on his shoulder and stood looking at her.

She appeared not so much older as more grown up. She had let her hair grow out a bit and it was more softly styled. She wore a pair of casual slacks and a loose shirt, but they were well cut and expensive. At her feet was an overnight bag.

"Hi, Jake," she said. Her smile was still the same. "The Jacaranda's doing well."

"Yes, it bloomed great this year." He bent down and picked up a Jacaranda flower from the lawn. "It's almost finished now, but if you'd been sitting there a month ago, you would have been surrounded by a purple carpet."

"I'm sorry I missed it; you'll have to let me know next time so I can make sure I arrange my schedule better. I just got in from the airport; any chance of a cup of coffee?"

"Of course," Jake said. "Come on in; I'll just get cleaned up a bit. You've caught me in the middle of fertilizing."

"So, that's your secret."

"No much of a secret," he grinned. "Just spread a ton of chicken-shit around. It stinks for a week, but you should see the plants afterwards." They walked across the yard to the house and Jake unlocked the back door. Inside the kitchen, Jake nodded in the direction of the kettle. "Get the water boiling and make yourself at home while I wash up; I won't be a second."

Jake went into the bathroom to get cleaned up. While he did so, Oriana took him at his word and wandered through the house, opening and closing doors. She called out to him from the library. "You're going to have to get some more shelves soon. You've got even more books than I remember."

Jake dried his hands and face and went down the hallway to the library. He stood in the doorway, watching Oriana as she ran her hands over the neatly arranged books. She pulled out the copy of Steppenwolf she had sent him. "I knew you had several of these, but I thought you'd appreciate one signed by the author."

Jake walked over and took the worn volume from her hands. He opened the cover and looked at the scrawled inscription inside. "I think that this is one of my most valuable books now, in more ways than one."

The kettle whistle shrilled from the kitchen and they walked back down the hallway. While Jake busied himself making a pot of coffee, Oriana rummaged around in her overnight bag and pulled out a book. She placed it on the table.

"Here's another one, but it's hardly in the same category as the others in your library. I can't write, but it seems I can draw."

Jake picked up the book and looked at the cover. It was a children's story and as he flicked through the pages, he saw that it was lavishly illustrated with beautifully detailed drawings. The story was told the adventures of a little girl who cooked magical cakes in her mother's kitchen, late at night. When Jake looked more closely at the illustrations he saw that the house in the book was his. Oriana had captured every last detail down to the leadlight pattern of his kitchen windows.

"There's a dedication at the front of the book," she said.

Jake turned to the opening page and read the words out. "To Jake, for sharing his home with me; and to Lilly, for sharing everything else."

"I hope you like it. If it hadn't been for you - and this house - I wouldn't have had the inspiration. I was renting this dingy little London bed-sit and kept thinking about you and this house, and your back garden and your library - and everything. I just started sketching little scenes I remembered. I even drew a picture of your garden and taped it over the only window I had - it looked out onto a laneway filled with garbage bins. One day, Ethan saw some of my sketches and put me in touch with a publisher friend of his. The next thing I knew, I had a contract to illustrate five books; this is number one."


"Oh, I forgot to tell you; I'm married now. To an Australian fellow I met in Ireland, of all places. I'd gone back to my home village for a visit and he wandered into the pub one day like a lost puppy. He'd been in Europe for a year and was so homesick. We just talked and talked and he ended up making me homesick too."

As she talked about this man, Jake saw that Oriana's eyes shone and he knew that she had at last put Japan well and truly behind her. "I would have invited you and Lily to the wedding," she continued, "but I didn't think you would have gotten there in time."

"Long engagement, huh?" Jake smiled. For some reason he felt a warm glow of happiness inside him. For the first time since he had met Oriana, he felt she was going to be all right. No matter what happened to her in life from now on, she would survive.

Oriana grinned back. "You know me. But you'll like Ethan; you've got the same taste in literature."

Jake peered suspiciously around the kitchen. "Where have you got him hidden, then?"

Oriana laughed. "No, he's still in London. I'm only here for a few days, before I fly back. My publisher wanted me to talk to some people in Sydney, and I convinced them to let me take a small detour. I couldn't come back without dropping in to see you." She actually blushed then. "Listen to me, talking about "my publisher" - I sound so pretentious already..."

Jake held up the book. "Well, you can be forgiven for a little bit of it. Judging by this, I think you've got quite a future ahead of you."

"That's another reason why I wanted to come back here, Jake." Oriana looked around the room. "This house... there's something about it. It is so real. Things have changed so much for me in the last two years. Whenever I start to lose perspective, I think about this house: the kitchen, the hallway, the study, your Jacaranda tree. "She picked up her coffee cup. "Even this cup is exactly the same as before. "The rest of the world could go crazy, but I know this house will always be here."

Jake shook his head. "It's just a house, Oriana. I like it too, but it's just four walls and a roof."

"You live here all the time, Jake. You take it for granted. But, there's something about this house that makes a person feel good. Maybe you're part of it too; maybe it's you and this house. Lilly knows what I mean; she makes all sorts of excuses to stay over when she can."

"Lilly doesn't need excuses," said Jake. "She knows she's welcome here anytime."

"Am I too, Jake?"

Jake smiled at Oriana. "I guess so. I don't think I could stop you anyway. At this rate, I'll have to get the builders in to add a guest wing."

Oriana looked alarmed. "No, Jake don't even joke about doing that. That would ruin the magic; it's believing everything will be the same each time that makes it so special. Whatever happens to me, I like to think that this house, this room, this table - even you - will be the same next time I have to return."

Jake looked down at the table top. He ran his fingers over the surface, tracing the pattern of scars and dents. Like the growth rings of a tree, he could associate some of the markings on the table with events that had taken place in his little kitchen, with people, with words, with happiness and with sadness.

"That's a big ask, Oriana. Everything changes, eventually," he said. "That Jacaranda in the backyard wasn't there when I moved in. I planted it as a sapling. After fifteen years it had changed the back garden totally; all the original plants had died and I had to replant with others that could tolerate being in shade for half the year. That lawn you thought was so soft one memorable night is actually clover - grass won't grow there."

He looked out through the open back door. The sack of fertilizer lay where he had dropped it. "You see this house as a constant, Oriana; I remember the change. You - and even Lilly - have only seen the results. Granted, the pace of change slowed dramatically after the early days, but I can't guarantee that things won't be different next time. Besides, I'm not getting any younger; I'll have to die one day."

Oriana smiled and shook her head. She reached across the table and laid her hand on his. "Nope, sorry, Jake. You can't get out of it that easy. Lilly and I plan to keep you around for a long time yet."

Out in the back yard, Jake noticed that the neighbour's cat had squeezed through the gap in the fence and was lying on it's back on the clover lawn. As he watched, one of the last Jacaranda flowers fluttered down from a branch above and settled lightly onto the cat's head. It twitched its whiskers once, as if contemplating action, but in the end it seemed to decide it was too comfortable to consider doing any more than just that.