The rust on the wrought iron gate left brown marks on Catherine’s fingertips as she pushed it open, stepping on to the stony path for the first time in 30 years.
Her eyes stung as she gazed at once magnificent old homestead, its veranda now sagging and the corrugated iron roof riddled with holes.
Droppings littered the path where sheep and kangaroos had invaded the once pristine yard in search of green pick.
The lemon tree from Catherine’s childhood stood in the corner of the yard, rotting fruit scattered across the ground. She remembered inhaling the strong citrus scent as she stood on tiptoes to pluck fruit from the branches for her grandmother. She’d also tried scrambling onto the metal fence beside the tree to reach the higher-hanging lemons and cried when the hot posts blistered the soles of her feet.
“Silly pork chop,” her grandmother chided gently, rubbing her feet with cream.
Their planned lemon butter making session was forgotten, switched for a lazier afternoon.
On a normal lemon butter making day, Catherine would fill buckets with the misshapen lemons and then haul her bounty back to the homestead, the muscles in her small arms straining with the effort.
“There’s my good strong girl,” her grandmother would say as Catherine returned to the kitchen, a metal bucket clanging against her knobbly knees.
“You’re the best lemon picker there is.”
“Really?” Catherine asked, grinning.
“Really,” Grandma promised. “Your mother preferred riding horses, but you’re my number one kitchen assistant.”
“It’s such a shame,” the real estate agent said.
“Sorry?” Catherine said, startled out of her thoughts by the grating voice of the man beside her.
“It’s a shame that the property was allowed to fall into such a state. The homestead would have been a beauty back in her day,” he said as they stood in the middle of the long dead lawn.
“It was,” Catherine admitted, casting her eye over the flaking white paint on the veranda’s columns, the broken windows between their shutters and the splintering front steps.
“Oh, you spent some time here?”
“I visited often as a child before my grandmother died,” Catherine said.
“Shall we go inside?” the agent said, leading Catherine up the stairs. “I have to admit, the homestead probably won’t add anything to a sale price. It’s prime land and that’s what your buyers will be after. A lot of people in the district waited for this place to go on the markets for years.”
“My mother wasn’t interested in selling but it’s my decision now.”
Catherine’s breath caught when they entered the kitchen and she saw the big old table, the lone piece of furniture left in the house. All of a sudden it was if she was six years old again and standing beside her grandmother, lemons spread out over the table.
Her grandmother would scrape a small wooden tool across a lemon, making squiggly curls of zest and setting them aside on the ancient chopping board. She would then hand the lemon to Catherine, who would use the small juicer to squeeze with all her might.
“That’s it, possum,” Grandma said. “We don’t want to waste any.”
Catherine was allowed to sit on the counter, watching as Grandma mixed the water, sugar, eggs, butter and the tart lemon zest and juice over the stove. The ingredients came together in a silky, smooth mixture, the citrus perfume filling the kitchen tantalisingly.
As an adult she’d once bought a jar of lemon butter from the Woolworths down the road but threw it out half way through. The processed preserve just couldn’t match her memories of the mixture of tart and sweet flavours dancing on her tongue as she devoured thickly spread scones in the garden.
In the dimly lit kitchen, Catherine gently nodded along to the real estate agent’s prattle and walked around one of the gaping holes in the dusty floor to the pantry and gazed at the mostly empty shelves. A framed picture, a generic landscape faded with the years, hung in the corner.
A glint of sunlight on glass caught her eye. There was one small jar pushed to the back corner of a shelf. She peered closely, hoping to see the telltale yellow visible through the grubby glass while knowing it wasn’t possible. The empty jar still bore a faded label with her grandmother’s scribbled handwriting.
Cath knew the ruined homestead would be bulldozed. The kitchen would never again hum with life or smell of lemon butter. Her hand closed around the dusty jar and dropped it in her handbag.
“All done here?” the agent said. “I can take you for a drive around the rest of the property.”
“Yes,” Catherine said. “I’m all done.”