39 - Banners and brand new

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"You couldn't be that man I adored, you don't seem to know, don't seem to care what your heart is for."

On Sunday morning, WELCOME BACK hangs from the gelato counter in big garish pink letters, behind which stands Penny - fuschia lipped and eyebrows crayoned on - grinning at me as if we've just been reunited in an episode of Long Lost Family Australia.

"You're back! You're back! You're baaaack!" She squeals in her sing-song voice, and before I've even got the glass door closed behind me — she's out from behind the counter and thrown her arms around my neck with a grip as tight as a koala Joey.

I'd expected to be repulsed by the gangly teenager embracing me, but there's something oddly comforting about someone actually valuing my presence in their life, and I can't help but squeeze her back. "I am indeed." I mumble into the mane of fiery hair, despite the fact it smells like an entire can of Elnett Satin.

Coming home to an empty apartment last night - when I was already a big ball of jumbled emotions - was almost on par with unrequited love. The emptiness of my hallway - as I'd stumbled through the door and almost over the legs of my safety-hazard coat stand - had been an awfully accurate representation of how my stomach and heart were feeling.

Completely and utterly desolate.

"I have missed you so much!" She exclaims and untangles her giraffe-like limbs from my body, which has since prickled with goosebumps. Apparently my skin has not taken kindly to the sudden jump from scorching Los Angeles to a significantly cooler Melbourne. "Luca hired this mental temp who was totally ancient—"

I place my left hand on one of her shoulders and step backwards. I've been here all of two minutes and my colleague has already reverted to her former motor-mouth self. "Penny, just give me two minutes to put my things away and get changed, and then I'm all yours."

I really hope I'm not going to regret that.

She blushes and steps to one side. "Of course, of course. It's just so great to see you!" It pains me to admit it — but despite her more annoying flaws, she is kind of sweet. She waves me through like an air hostess in the doorway of a commercial aircraft, and I roll my eyes.

Pushing open the door to the staff room makes it feel as though I never left this place. The contents of it, however, does.

During my sabbatical, Luca apparently decided to bring The Gelato Store into the 21st century. Grey steel lockers now stand tall in the far right corner; long and thin like the ones lining the corridors in every American high school movie, and there's a mini fridge wedged under the counter that Penny - apparently up until recently - used to use as a desk for all the homework she'd left until the last minute. As if on cue, a whirring sound comes to life overheard and draws my eyes to a brand spanking new air conditioning unit.

Well, flip me.

Despite the new facilities, I dump my things on the same worn out chair that I've used as a coat hanger for the past five years, and carry my apron out into the front of the store. Penny's practically bouncing on her toes.

"What the hell happened in there?" I ask as I secure the familiar peach apron around my waist. "Did we get a new manager while I was away?"

Penny snorts. "No way. That was all Lori."

I frown. "Who is Lori?"

"The mental ancient temp." She rubs her hands together; something she always seems to do at the beginning of a "good" story. "Luca hired her to fill in while you were gallivanting around The States."

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