Part Three of three parts over three days, this Christmas story is a semi-humorous collection of reminiscences from an adult when he was a teenager. He said it is a fictional recollection – but is it? I have retained the way it was imparted to me, with minimal alterations and formatting so readers may find it a bit unconventional. GBW.
Dad had his specs on and was reading the newspaper, to see if his shares had risen, while listening to the cricket commentary on the radio. The others had flopped in front of that boring ye olde traditional stuff on television, so I went into my bedroom. I checked my new tan in the mirror, then checked to see if the flat parcel was still there. I felt around inside the pillow slip but couldn’t feel anything. Where was it? I felt all around the area, my wooden bedhead, under the sheet, under the bed, down the back of the bed, but it was gone. My heart rose into my throat before plunging down into the pit of my stomach. Someone must have found it. When would they come forward to quiz me? I had been dreading the thought of my fingerprints being on the envelopes until I realised that my fingerprints were not on any police file. Then I grasped the next fact. They would dust the prints then check my actual fingers. Sprung so soon when it was only an hour before the bonfire, one hour before the evidence would have been incinerated. I collapsed onto my bed.
Eventually I got up from my bed and walked slowly out into the backyard, around the dusty cactus rockery, and towards Dad to help him chuck stuff on the accumulating bonfire pile. He had finished with his newspaper and was already twisting it into wicks and setting up sticks to encourage a good blaze under our discarded remnants of Christmas. That was a good metaphor and I mentally made a note. Everyone was told to stay inside as Dad lit a match and the bonfire flames licked at paper plates, wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, cellophane, plastic cartons, plastic cutlery, bonbon hats, tooters, streamers, tangled decorations and a disposable cooking apron which twisted and writhed and finally melted in the red-hot flames. A steady column of acrid black smoke rose into the sky.
In the intense heat, a molten puddle began to form, and in this inferno I thought I saw a text book shrivel into ashes. A donation from Roslyn? The high temperature would have kept us back, but we were never allowed to toast crumpets or marshmallows on sticks because Dad said the air was too toxic. I hoped our neighbours had their windows closed and I thought of Mr Bad Neighbour’s gravelly voice. If everyone burned off, I reckon the air would turn to ash and breathing would be difficult. The sun would be blocked, the rivers would turn to sludge, the trees would lose their leaves and the temperature would rise.
Shocked at my own imagination, I turned to the old mango tree growing in the opposite corner of the garden near the paling fence. Suddenly I wanted to stop the burning. It was my favourite tree and it was getting ash on its leaves. I was turning to run for the garden hose when Bitzy ran passed me. Instantly I saw what he had in his mouth but as I reached down, he veered away and headed towards the bonfire. Two awful things happening at once. It was hopeless to try and stop the blaze now, so I concentrated my efforts on Bitzy. I shouted to Dad. “Stop Bitzy! He’s got my book in his mouth!” With one sweeping gesture, Dad reached down and took the parcel out of the dog’s mouth, holding it above his head. Bitzy did a wide arch and ran back toward the house and his water bowl.
“Thanks, Dad,” I gasped, “it’s too important to be scorched.” He raised an eyebrow. I didn’t stick around to offer an explanation. The house was cool after the extra heat outside and I welcomed the quietness of my bedroom. I pushed aside Philip’s swap cards and sat down at my small student desk. With coloured pencils, scissors and glue I made a paper angel, wrote on one outstretched wing, then folded it across the body. I glued the angel to the packet and before I could think any more about it, I ran out of my room, flung open the front door, raced down the patio steps, along the crazy paving to the front gate and headed towards Mr Bad Neighbour’s dumb, er, distinctive letterbox.
I slipped the flat parcel into the posting window of the Swiss Chalet and turned away. I ran slap bang into Mr Bad Neighbour. He steadied me with one wrinkled hand. In the other he held a Christmas-looking parcel. “Here.” His face was pale, his voice was wheezy. “Save me a trip. This is for you and your family.” I stuttered my thanks, which he waved away saying “It’s only shortbread.” I smiled. “That’s my favourite.” He nodded. “Mine, too.” This was getting a bit embarrassing for me, so I muttered another thank you and stepped around him, racing back home quick sticks.
It wasn’t until I was sipping leftover eggnog and munching shortbread biscuits that I realised Mr Bad Neighbour did not appear from his front gate. He must have come down the street. There was a ting sound as Mum hung up the phone. She came bustling down the hallway full of gossip. “Well, guess what, my lovelies?” I shrugged and the others just waited for her announcement. “Mr Bad Neighbour has been delivering tins of shortbread to all the homes in the street. Francesca says you could have knocked her down with a feather she was so surprised.” Dad said “Well, that’s nice of the bloke. Maybe he’s not as bad as we think.” Mum tapped her chin and said “You know his health is bad.”
Roslyn and I looked at each other over the top of Philip’s chlorinated head. I knew from the gleam which flared in Roslyn’s eyes that she was the one who had given Bitzy the envelope parcel. She must have had her fingers crossed that the dog wouldn’t make it to the bonfire. She said “Just another Christmas miracle, I guess.” I wanted to wink at her but it seemed too corny. And how could I tell her what I had felt in the split second beside the bonfire? It was like I saw the world being choked by our own careless actions. When I go back to school next year, I know I am going to be really interested in geography and social studies and definitely telling people to think about where all their rubbish goes. Into the ground or into the air, I am sure it is going to cause long term damage one way or the other.
It was about half an hour before bedtime and Bitzy growled in his sleep, Philip picked at his flaky nose, and Mum and Dad were being mushy, hugging on the couch in front of the television with the sound turned off. We’d had a good laugh about the time Dad put the dining table directly under the ceiling fan and turned it on full blast when Mum had just finished laying the table decorations. Red, green and silver flew everywhere! Roslyn and I sat on the floor reading really old Blinky Bill comics. I bumped shoulders and said “Thanks for being a good sister, Ros.” She grinned. “Oh, I just have to be patient. You always work things out in the end.” She sounded a bit like Mum and I groaned theatrically. Holding up a bowl, I said “Care for one of Uncle Mark’s nuts?”
All in all, it was a pretty good Christmas. But that was months ago, and you know what? Since then Mr Bad Neighbour has not held a loud party. In fact, he doesn’t have parties any more. He also stopped smoking and takes healing art classes in the church hall. His speciality is angels and he is considering launching a business called Angels of Forgiveness or some such soppiness like that. I certainly hope he never talks about my note or mentions the archangel called Gabriel because that just happens to be my first name.
You know what Gabriel wrote on the inside of that angel’s wing? It was a quote he’d heard on Christmas Day And it goes something like this “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” Colossians 3:13
Part Two of three parts over three days, this Christmas story is a semi-humorous collection of reminiscences from an adult when he was a teenager. He said it is a fictional recollection – but is it? I have retained the way it was imparted to me, with minimal alterations and formatting so readers may find it a bit unconventional. GBW.
This may have been a threat but I reckon Mr Bad Neighbour wouldn’t take it further because he was mostly in the wrong, most of the time. I’ll never forget him taking a kick a Bitzy just for walking past his front gate. What he didn’t know was that he was surrounded by neighbours who pretended to ignore him while keeping a dossier and thinking “He’s a bit suss. He’ll trip himself up sooner or later.” Of course, they hoped he’d trip and fall straight into prison. There’s a slim chance that could happen. But, in the meantime, they politely pretend he didn’t exist.
I hung up the receiver and it clattered into the cradle in such a way that I hoped hurt his eardrums. As I turned, I saw a pile of white envelopes someone had dumped in the cane basket beside the telephone which usually held keys and junk. I brushed aside tiny plastic charms from the Christmas bonbons we had at school on the last day and started to shuffle through the bundle like a pack of cards. I recognised some of the handwriting and was pleased to see an overseas stamp. My brain stopped my hand. My eyes locked on the address in a long window-faced envelope. It wasn’t addressed to my parents. It wasn’t addressed to me. It was addressed to the man nextdoor. We had received Mr Bad Neighbour’s post by mistake.
Tentatively, I recommenced shuffling the white business envelopes and was amazed to see that three others had his name and address on them. I read a bank return address, a doctor’s return address, a government office return address and an investment corporation return of address. There was no way of knowing if they held good news or requests for payment. Maybe the doctor’s one said he had an incurable disease. “Oh no,” I thought, “that could mean he’s highly contagious.” I shuddered. My next thought was to toss the envelopes back on the pile and let Mum or Dad sort them out. They’d probably seen this happen before, especially at Christmastime when the post office had relief staff sorting the mail. Mum might even slip a striped candy cane in with the bundle. She would think it was a nice gesture but I preferred to think it was hinting at Scrooge, or more likely the Grinch.
My mind seesawed but my hand stayed firmly clamped. There were many things I could do with these four envelopes and they were all illegal. I couldn’t open them, I couldn’t bin them, I thought about re-posting them so they took longer to get back to him, and finally the nastiest option. I could drop them in the soapy kitchen sink, maybe walk on them, then popping them into his letterbox. He’d never know. Or would he? The postman may have realised his error and would be prepared to testify in court that he put them in our letterbox, unsullied.
The more I mulled over ways to annoy Mr Bad Neighbour by delaying or partially destroying his mail, the less grip I had on reality. The right thing to do had slowly evaporated and I knew there was no way I would simply put his mail straight into his stupid Swiss Chalet letterbox with its plastic Rudolph on the roof. I wanted to get back at him for pushing over my bicycle, puncturing my football, telling Mum I trod on his flower bed looking for snails. Well, it was for a school science project.
Re-posting mail at this time of year meant long delivery delays, quite possibly he wouldn’t get the four envelopes until the New Year and by then he may have advanced lung cancer. The rational part of my mind said “Surely the doctors have already booked his hospital bed?” No, there was nothing for it. My finger prints were all over them, they had to be destroyed. It wouldn’t be my fault they accidentally fell into the bonfire we always had in the back corner of the garden on Boxing Day afternoon. Mum liked to clear up and burn the rubbish left over from our festivities. Occasionally items, unwanted or otherwise, were accidentally broken or scrunched up or drooled on by Bitzy, so what did a handful of paper matter?
It may have been Aunt Zilla’s Christmas plum pudding and brandy custard, but I did not sleep well that night. Cousin Philip’s parents were on a grown-ups break so Philip stayed in my bedroom, snoring like a diesel train in a sleeping bag. First up, after I had wiped the envelopes down like they do in the movies, I secured them in some spare wrapping paper and sticky-taped the sides. Unsure if they would pass as useless overflow or a forgotten gift, I tucked them safely into my pillowcase. This made my pillow crackle all night and that didn’t help my sleep either. My mind replayed our Christmas Day family fun over and over, but instead of focusing on my great haul of goodies, and Dad whacking a six over the garage, it kept circling back to the hall telephone table.
Over Boxing Day breakfast, mainly leftover lychees, cheesy bread and dips, I casually asked Roslyn what she thought a person would be fined if they destroyed someone’s Christmas mail. She looked away from the sight of Philip spooning plum pudding and custard into his mouth and onto his chin. After swallowing a chunk of ham, slathered in mustard pickles, she said “Depends what was in the mail?” then took a big glug of orange juice before continuing. “If it was birthday money or bank cheques, it would probably mean a stint in the lockup.” This was not what I wanted to hear. “Er,” I groped for a reply. “What if it was an accident?” She laughed. “Then nobody would know, would they?” And I knew I had my answer.
I tried to keep the jubilant tone out of my voice, while tucking away the word “jubilant” to dazzle my next English teacher, and said “Better not work in the post office, I guess.” Roslyn gave me a funny look, as though she was going to ask if I’d got a holiday job. I quickly jumped to my feet. “Hey, Phil, wanna come to the pool with us tomorrow?” Philip nearly choked in his eagerness to accept the invitation. It was nice being a younger kid’s idol. “That would be great!” Roslyn raised her nose and said in a haughty voice “I wouldn’t come to that lukewarm pool if you paid me.” I pulled my Velcro wallet out of my board shorts. “I have moneeey.” I waggled two five dollar notes. “Ice creams are on me.” They both responded appropriately but I guessed Roslyn had worked out that Uncle Mark had been unfair and given me more than he had given her this Christmas. Should it matter? It did, and I felt bad about it. I made a mental note to buy her a packet of Smarties.
Philip’s holidaying parents left instructions while they were away; games of Scrabble were meant to be the kid’s calm Boxing Day entertainment. Yeah… At the chlorinated council swimming pool, I let Phil slide down the slippery slide into the blue water about a hundred times and eat too many jelly snakes which made him sick. Even when Roslyn forced him to wear a daggy t-shirt in the water, and he got a sunburned face which made him look like a drunk on Saturday night, he loved every minute of it. “You forgot to apply his sunscreen cream,” wailed Mum. “Don’t worry, Auntie June,” said Philip. “My skin will peel off soon enough.” She left the room still wailing but I couldn’t work out if it was because of Philip’s skin or because her own sister would skin her alive. Little did I know that I was minutes away from my own personal disaster.
Part One of three parts over three days, this Christmas story is a semi-humorous collection of reminiscences from an adult when he was a teenager. He said it is a fictional recollection – but is it? I have retained the way it was imparted to me, with minimal alterations and formatting so readers may find it a bit unconventional. GBW.
Another stinking hot and humid morning, classic Queensland December weather. Another sweltering Christmas Day lunch was coming with its overload of perfumed aunts, sweaty uncles, sweaty sliced ham, burnt potatoes and sickly sweet desserts squabbled over by squealing cousins. One year, all the aunts brought pavlova, sunken in the middle and piled high with Golden Circle tinned fruit. The cream on top had started to curdle and Mum had given up trying to swish off the flies. This year Aunt Hilda brought the sweetest dessert, a huge glass bowl of rocky road trifle. I thought cousin Philip’s head was going to explode with excitement.
The entrée was always nice. Usually Jatz crackers, cheese cubes, carrot and celery sticks and maybe olives or cocktail onions. If Uncle Mark attended, it was guaranteed there would be salted peanuts, salted brazil nuts and salted cashew nuts. Not that he was particularly generous, it was just that he liked nuts with his chilled beer. He drank a lot of chilled beer, summer and winter actually.
Uncle Lucas said what he said every year. “The person who invented the festive punch bowl was a drongo. Talk about a foolish way to serve yourself a drink.” The main reason he didn’t like it was because Mum never poured alcohol into the bowl because of the little kids. But I had to agree. For a start, if chunks of pineapple are mixed into the lemonade and cordial swill, it is very hard to ladle the liquid into your glass without splashing. If my sister Roslyn, who hated stuff in her drinks––even those paper umbrellas––spied a slice of lemon or a glacé cherry floating around, she would spend half an hour trying to fish it out with a toothpick she’d pulled out of a boiled cheerio. Of course, the linen tablecloth got pretty sticky but our dog Bitzy enjoyed his snack. On the whole, he did very well out of Christmas lunch. He’s only sicked up once so far.
In fact, Bitzy was ready and salivating when we all trudged home from the universal Christmas Day morning church service. I think it was invented to delay the opening of presents under the tree. The best present I got was Cluedo and I kept asking everyone to play it with me. Anyway, we had to walk there and back because the almost-Christians always filled the carpark at Christmas. The first thing I noticed was that Bitzy had romped through most of the gifts under the tree. Probably bidding our cat a fond goodbye for the next couple of days. Fortunately there was no food in any of the presents so he didn’t do much damage, although the bows looked a bit wonky, and I could see a skinny Barbie arm waving for help through a snowman-wrapped box.
Snowmen, holly, red robins, can’t we move on? Even Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, or St Nicholas wears a red hot thermal suit. In this temperature! Come on, those cards on the mantelpiece are weird, why would he get togged up, harness the reindeers and deliver pressies to kids in the outback wearing that outfit? And why does he fly over Bondi Beach or Ayers Rock? Most of us live in three-bedroomed houses in the suburbs. I vaguely thought of the song “Six White Boomers” about kangaroos instead of reindeer. Those reindeers are a worry, surely it’s not their only seasonal job. And what if Santa got a ute?
This got me thinking about the Sri Lankan family at one end of our street, and the Indigenous mob at the other end where me mate Gazza used to live. I will have to ask Dad if they exchange gifts and celebrate like we do with decorations and excessive food. Before school starts again next year, maybe I can ask Gazza. He’s been outback but hopefully will swing into town at the end of January around Australia Day celebrations. Well, maybe not, he burns the flag, so I’ll probably see him in February.
I tweaked the tinsel holding another load of gaudy cards and they bounced violently but didn’t fall off. Mum always wrote Christmas cards even though she said it was a chore and Dad said it was to keep in good with people. Our tree this year was a bare branch from a local gumtree, stuck in a flower pot and decorated with crafty things Roslyn and I made at school while the teachers took a break in the staff room. It was strung with twinkly coloured lights and looked good leaning forward, sort of humble, like Mary and Joseph in the cowshed. Sometimes Roslyn would make a little manger, padded with dry grass, and wrap one of her dolls in a facecloth to look like baby Jesus. She didn’t like it when I used my toy dinosaurs as lowly cattle.
In the lead up to Christmas, we always visited the local Christmas Lights display. Lights were plastered all over ordinary homes in ordinary streets, creating traffic chaos but giving everyone an eyeful of how much electricity there is to waste. Roslyn thought I was weird because I liked the plain twinkly lights in the trees, not the big bold brightly coloured ones that beamed from roof-lines in the shape of the nativity. This year a couple of families had lined their driveways in a successful imitation of an aircraft runway. I guess it was an incentive for Father Christmas to visit, reserved parking, no chimney fuss. I half expected to see a bale of hay for Rudolph and the team.
When I think of lights and decorations, I think of the time when Roslyn was a toddler, she popped a small glass Christmas tree decoration into her mouth and chomped it. Everyone went hysterical and she had to spit it out and rinse her mouth and get a lecture. It was only Uncle Mark who muttered “Damn glass manufacturers” which is probably why the world went plastic. In hindsight, it has proved to be just as dangerous.
Dad usually asked “Could we have a barbecue this year, love?” but Mum always vetoed the idea because “It’s Christmas, Merv, not Melbourne Cup Day.” He grumbled as he stirred the rich dark gravy he always made for the roasted leg of lamb. Which he always had the honour of carving right after we said grace. This meat was my favourite and I couldn’t understand why my best friend Redmond was a vegetarian when there was such a variety of food on the planet. I’d often ask “Why restrict yourself, Red?” and he’d snort and go and sit on another side of the shelter shed, muttering “carnivore” and filling his mouth with mung beans.
Anyway, on this after-lunch, over-heated Christmas afternoon, the phone rang. Due to the little kids still playing in the paddling pool, everyone lazily keeping an eye on them, their aluminium chairs sinking into the lawn as they digested the food they’d gutsed, I was the bunny. I raced towards the house, scaring a scrap-watching magpie, ran along the hallway and skidded to a stop in front of the telephone table.
“Hello,” I said and held my breath, wondering who it would be. A gravelly voice said “Would you stop making so much blasted noise.” I blinked. This was our nextdoor neighbour who always made the most noise in the street. Loud parties, squealing women, swearing men, breaking bottles, knocking over bins, and revving his Holden Monaro GTS twin exhaust pipes at one o’clock in the morning. I swallowed and composed the reply Mum had drilled into me. “Thank you for calling. I’ll let my parents know you rang.” His cleared his cigarette smoker’s throat. “You better, or else there’ll be trouble.”
BACKGROUND INFORMATIONMoggill Ferry, a tolled vehicular cable ferry, crosses the Brisbane River between Moggill, Brisbane and Riverview, Ipswich, Queensland. It has weathered several floods since 1920s and had various replacements. The ferry was motorised in 1940s under joint control of the Ipswich and Brisbane City Councils. It can carry 20 vehicles (car AU$1.90) GVM vehicle up to 4.5 tonnes (AU$16.30) pedestrians (free) and operates between sunrise and sunset—if you miss the last ferry, you have to take the long way via Ipswich Highway. Services operate daily, except for Good Friday and Christmas Day. The journey takes approximately 4 minutes on the vehicle ferry. I think that depends on the pull of the current. During the floods of 2011, the ferry cables broke and ferry staff lashed it to the riverbank so it would not get washed away. It may look like a bygone era but it is well-used and only 19km (12 miles) from the centre of the city. GBW.
It’s nauseating. I usually don’t read on public transport. Sentences sway like a line of melting ants. I look out the bus window, watching cars whoosh along one level, trains on another. Soon train tracks swoop down, crossing the road. Ding, ding, ding, shrills the signal. A teenager ducks under the falling boom gate and sprints across the tracks. Impatient, foolish. Two seconds between life and resembling dog vomit. Platform security guards move in. The teenager projects nonchalance then slumps onto a metal seat. The bus moves off and my eyes fall to the formicine words.
“The written word has been a big part of my work-life, never for personal fulfillment. The birth of my blog activated the joyous freedom of self-expression. I use public transport and, oh, the things I’ve seen …” – the author
Do you occasionally go Goth and take a walk in the cemetery?
It has long been a source of comfort to me when I’m in a depressed mood.
Whether it’s the tranquillity, the otherworldliness or the bees buzzing in the freshly laid flowers, I couldn’t say. The grass, not quite a lawn, is comfortable to walk on.
I can think melancholy thoughts because I am walking able-bodied through the cemetery, reasonably intact for my age, wearing casual clothes and a sunhat, clutching my water bottle and car keys.
In front of me, the carved headstones, sinking marble slabs and rusty iron railings hold a certain olde worlde charm but tell of sadness and loss and neglect.
It has been several months since my last visit and I notice new gravestones. It is a hard heart that is not moved by the chisel-etched lettering. The rows of columbarium niches. Or newly turned earth.
My gloominess shifts, alternating between being surrounded by absolute endings and ongoing beginnings. Generations moving forward, carrying the same blood in their veins––until it too drains away.
I chide myself for forgetting to bring flowers when I see a child’s name on a temporary cross. My memories race to another place, my heart-broken mother lying across the back seat of the car, weeping tears which splash onto the vinyl seating. Inconsolable grief beyond my young understanding but I knew my brother had gone.
We know death hovers over us for many different reasons. We ignore, we forestall, but when the time comes we construct memorials to the deceased and monuments to the power of death.
Like my favourite mausoleum.
It had rained in the night, the scent of pungent eucalyptus leaves all around, and I can see the sides of the stone mausoleum are still damp.
Small patches of brown and green mould creep around the edges of a large, tightly sealed wooden door with solid metal hinges and no handle. Not even a lock. A firm statement of eternity for those entombed within. Unless it’s a cenotaph. Either way, I don’t think anyone will answer my knock.
I see this edifice as an art form of some complexity. Not knowing anything about it, no name or plaque to give an inkling of tenure, I feel neither fear nor intimidation, and am certainly not in awe of its size and prominence on the hillside.
The roof is domed. An off-white marble angel stands in prayer on the top, miraculously intact given the damage to smaller, equally virtuous angel statues set around the outer walls. Lower down, straggly weeds mingle with intricately carved flowers which appear to sprout from the earthworks.
A mosaic frieze, rendered in ceramic tile and glass fragments, encircles all four walls. Some parts twinkle and glisten, most are dull. I can never work out if it depicts a religious theme or the life of a prosperous family. Ah, entwined I think.
The worn stone step beneath the sturdy door looks unsafe and ready to crumble at the slightest shoe pressure. Clearly not the original bluestone foundation slab. The breeze picks up and two withered plants on either side of the gravel pathway shiver and shake like baby rattles.
I glance skyward as the afternoon sun is covered by streaks of sombre cloud. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise this resting place would look forbidding by night. I am unsettled. Those dark hours would be a step too far.
After completing my circuit, I gather myself, my mind, my accoutrements and I am ready to acknowledge the towering obelisk stationed at the gate. Did it sway? I politely thank its ebony magnificence and amble out to the carpark.
So, why is this cemetery connected to me? Will I end up here? Can I conceive of the idea of me ending up here?
I cannot conceive of me ending up here, the thought is unmanageable, bizarre even.
Which is why I like a quiet walk in the cemetery. I breathe the fresh air and rejoice in the fact that today I can.
Gretchen, I would like to thank you, on behalf of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival and Bipolar Scotland, for taking the time to write and submit your work to the writing competition for the 2019 Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. Your contribution to the competition was very much appreciated. Unfortunately, on this occasion, your work was not chosen for our shortlist. Chief Executive, Bipolar Scotland.
It’s a bright, breezy Saturday morning and I’m doing light housework when I hear a knock on the front door. On the weekend nobody knocks at the front door at this time of day. Nobody except salespeople touting a product, charity or religion. I go to the window and look down at the doorstep, which doesn’t have a porch covering, and I see two people. A fair-haired woman who is thumbing through an iPad and a man in a jaunty hat. The window is open so I lean out, say a loud hello and they look up. Predictably, they respond with surprise, the man uttering the usual “A voice from above” and I give a weak smile. The woman swallows and clears her throat. She launches straight into her patter which goes something like this “We are currently in your neighbourhood discussing death and dying and what this means to families, your family…etc, death cropping up several times…and what are your thoughts on this subject?” My first reaction is annoyance, she hasn’t said who she represents. The invisible signs are as obvious as the outward message. My second reaction is one of astonishment. Do they really expect me to talk over such a matter with them, total strangers, door-knocking my street, making dogs bark, trying to look deep and meaningful on a topic which is universally devastating no matter what the circumstances? My third and final reaction is to look her in the eyes and say “I’m sorry, I do not wish to participate.” She smiles, he smiles, I offer them a polite good-bye and they wish me a happy weekend. As I’m drawing back, I catch a momentary look of relief on the woman’s face. ♥Gretchen Bernet-Ward
My friend and fellow writer Maud Fitch tilted her head at me and said “Everything is fine for the first three months then the rot sets in and the wheels fall off. Or, for a modern analogy, your reception drops out.” She checked to see if I was listening. “You are left high and dry and feeling cheated, let down, out of sorts, tired, jaded or basically unmotivated. The first three months of anything are the best, then comes the worst three months.” As she took a breath, I gave her a querying look. “Why?” she responded, “Well, who knows? This is my take on human nature.”
I was perched on a wooden stool while Maud had settled herself down in an easy chair, cardigan wrapped tightly and slippers wedged firmly on her small feet. She coughed delicately and adjusted her spectacles before continuing. “A new career, a new car, exercise workout, bonsai class, creative writing, artistic pursuit, second marriage, an extended holiday, all seemingly wonderful for those crucial three months. Then, bam, a total train wreck. Worse, it’s a total bore! Then you wish you had never started.” I opened my mouth to protest but she ploughed ahead. “Of course, this phenomenon can work in reverse. The first three months of a new baby, the first three months of post-operative surgery, or worse, the first three months of giving up smoking. Two words – mindset.” I stifled a laugh. “Okay, one word. But keep an open mind because nothing stays the same for long.”
Uncomfortable, I stretched my shoulders. “Don’t thrash around,” Maud shouted, startling me. She waved her arm dangerously close to her favourite cat figurine. “Look up, look ahead, search for those footholds and handholds to help move you forward again. Work your way out of the slump, not by changing direction (although you might, she hissed in an aside) but by forging through the undergrowth on that overgrown path until you reach a reasonable destination where you can relax, regroup and start again – when you are good and ready! It may not be the perfect spot to wait, nevertheless, it will do until you reinvigorate.”
Maud slumped back. “Do you think that’s too strong for them?” I laughed. “Maud, I am sure the ladies luncheon committee has heard stronger things than that.” She eyed me dubiously, unsmiling, the inference being that she knew them better than I ever could. I was sure her delivery would win them over and if it didn’t, just like seasonal change, there was always another one.
After some shuffling, Maud pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper from down the side of her chair. “I was going to reference motivationalist Julia Cameron when she says ‘Sometimes these U-turns are best viewed as recycling times’ but I’m going to read this genuine job advertisement first and say ‘Ladies, be thankful you are relaxing here today’ then launch straight into my talk.” Maud cleared her throat and read loudly:
“About you – Highly motivated, you possess excellent listening and strong customer service skills. You have proven ability to build rapport with customers, key partners and management. You possess strong problem solving and resolution capabilities. Resilient, flexible, literate, you have the ability to work under pressure, deal with rapid change and work to strict time frames. Self-motivated, available at short notice, you are currently looking to embark on your next career challenge and add value to a growing organisation. If this sounds like you APPLY today! Previous exposure dealing with print/sales/retail is desirable however not essential.”
With a snap of fingers on paper, Maud whooped “Burnout dead ahead” which I thought was a bit unfair. “Oh, Maudie” I said, a nickname she disliked, “you make me want to grab a coffee and start scrolling endless, mindless amusements across my screen.” I picked up my phone. I don’t think that was quite the incentive she had in mind and may have misinterpreted my gesture. She frowned and started flipping through the pages of her speech, obviously keen to memorise more text. “Look.” I offered her the phone. On the screen was an old Gary Larson “The Far Side” cartoon. Now, that really did make her laugh.
Maud Fitch was well-known to the local police. While Maud would say she was recognised for her crime-busting phone calls and neighbourly good deeds, Sergeant Ron Tisdale on the front desk of Kingsgrove police station expressed the opinion that she was a nuisance caller.
“In fact,” he said in his rich baritone voice, “she’s a serial pest.”
Sergeant Tisdale had just hung up from her latest telephone call.
“It’s not as though Maud fits into the lonely old woman category,” he said generously. “She’s got a good family, a part-time job and plenty of hobbies.”
A junior officer asked what the problem was this time. “An escaped nerd alert?”
“Don’t be too cheeky, lad,” said Tisdale, careful not to let his soft spot show. “This time Maud has been observing her retired neighbour across the road and she thinks he’s murdered his sister and disposed of the body.”
The younger officer laughed. “Wasn’t that a storyline on TV last night? She’s a sponge. She absorbs everything she sees on television and translates it to her own life to spice things up.”
“That might be so but I’ll log the details just the same,” said the Sergeant. He rubbed his chin. “I think I’ll drop by Ms Fitch’s place on my way home this afternoon. Just a quick visit to check that everything is fine.”
Being the senior officer, he ignored the knowing wink from his subordinate.
Maud had made a comment about uncharacteristic behaviour which sounded an
alarm bell in his orderly mind. At the very least, he wanted to see that sparkle in her eyes when she had a hunch about something.
* * *
Maud saw Angus McDowell draw the living room curtains again. He seemed to open and close the floral curtains three or four times a day in a vain attempt to make it look like someone was at home. That in itself was unusual in such a safe little town like Kingsgrove but it was always his sister, Felicity, who did the domestic work inside their home. Angus was the outside type. He trimmed the garden, attacked the weeds and planted flowers as orderly as a row of chairs at the movies.
“He’s been doing that curtain thing for several days now,” said Maud. She shaded her eyes from the afternoon sunlight which gleamed down on her pale skin and auburn hair. She turned and caught Sergeant Tisdale with a transfixed look on his face. “And I haven’t seen Felicity for almost a week.”
The Sergeant cleared his throat and reached for his fourth helping of Maud’s homemade biscuits.
“Perhaps she’s gone on a holiday?” he suggested. “Has he told you anything specifically to the contrary to arouse your suspicions?”
Maud poured more hot water into his coffee cup and frowned.
“That’s just it, he’s cut himself off, Sergeant.”
“Please, call me Ron,” he said.
“Angus isn’t answering the phone or the door bell,” she added, “Ron.”
“Maybe Felicity is visiting family and he didn’t want to go with her. Could be he’s home alone having a kind of bachelor break.” Sergeant Tisdale muttered to himself, “Lord knows we all need one of those occasionally.”
Maud understood that his daughter was leaving the grandchildren with him more and more now that his divorce had come through, thinking that it would cheer him up.
“He’s not the type,” she said emphatically. From her position as a twice-divorced woman with grown-up sons, Maud felt she could speak with authority on the slovenly ways of men when left to their own devices. Angus was neither a loner nor a slob.
The Sergeant shrugged his broad shoulders.
To highlight her next words, she tapped her spoon on the side of her cup.
“He’s been doing everything under the cover of darkness.”
After she had outlined the nocturnal behaviour of her neighbour, Sergeant Tisdale said “I don’t want to snuff out your theory with a fire blanket, Maud, but I hardly think getting the groceries delivered or taking out the rubbish and collecting the mail after dark constitutes a criminal case.”
Crumbs were starting to gather on the front of the Sergeant’s shirt and he automatically brushed them off. Maud’s glare made him hang his head like a school boy. He apologised as she hurried out of the room to find her hand-held vacuum cleaner. When she came back she noticed he had taken the opportunity to stuff a savoury cheese sandwich in his mouth.
Over the suction noise of the vacuum, Maud said “I haven’t told you the clincher yet.”
“Clincher?” mumbled Sergeant Tisdale. The look on his face indicate that he thought this was another word for Maud’s guesswork. But she knew he was actually allowing himself enough time to swallow the sandwich. It gave her the chance to air her next piece of evidence.
“Yesterday, when I dropped by, there was no flower bed in the back garden. Now there’s one near their old jacaranda tree.” Her voice rang with triumph.
Sergeant Tisdale smiled politely. “The McDowell’s have a neat garden, they like gardening, I see nothing unusual with that.”
“But, Ron,” gasped Maud, “it was dug in the middle of the night.”
“Well?” said Sergeant Tisdale as he eyed the last biscuit.
Maud shoved the plate towards him. “It’s the same size as a graveyard plot.”
Unimpressed, Sergeant Tisdale sighed. “And?”
“And there’s no flowers planted in it,” said Maud. “The reason I think this is so significant is the fact that Angus has a bad back so all the hard work is carried out by a landscaper who arrives around ten o’clock in the morning.”
She waited for a rebuke, similar to the kind her family dished out, which usually ended with her being told she was a sticky beak. Instead, Sergeant Tisdale asked “When did you last…?” With a dramatic squeal, she cut him off and pointed out the window. “Look! He’s fussing at the curtains again. I can see his gardening overalls.”
Sergeant Tisdale half rose from the armchair which caused a cushion to tumble to the floor and coffee to slop onto his trousers. Maud gave a snort of annoyance but it was directed through the window.
“Too late,” she said. “He’s ducked out of sight.”
“Sorry about that,” said Sergeant Tisdale. He sat back down and carefully reached for a paper serviette.
“Oh, don’t worry…” began Maud.
“No, I don’t mean spilling my coffee,” he said. “I meant twitchy behaviour. It happens a lot around policeman. Police cars also have a way of making citizens nervous.” He dabbed at his knee with the disintegrating paper and changed the course of the conversation. “Maybe he’s worried about you, Maud.” She rejected this idea with a wave of her hand. “No, I think he knows we’re on to him.” For emphasis, she punched a small fist into the palm of her hand.
“Let’s nail him,” she said.
“I’m shocked,” said the Sergeant and smiled. “You have a wonderful imagination.”
His comment was ignored because Maud remembered something else she’d forgotten to tell him. “You know, I rang all the hospitals in Kingsgrove and none of them had a Felicity McDowell on their patient admissions list.”
By tilting his head to the side, Maud thought his interest was piqued but he dashed her hopes.
“What’s the motive, Maud? From all reports, Angus and Felicity McDowell have got on very well over the years, considering they are brother and sister. No sibling rivalry there. They’ve settled into retirement together after the death of their mother and have never put a foot wrong, so to speak. Now, answer me this,” he said and leaned forward slightly. “Why do you think Angus has murdered his sister Felicity?”
His voice sent a shiver up Maud’s spine. She sucked in a lungful of air and expelled it slowly. “Well, dear Ron, I was saving the most incriminating evidence until last.”
Sergeant Tisdale put his cup aside, drew himself up in the armchair and displayed credible anticipation.
“The McDowells were arguing just before Felicity disappeared.” Maud moistened her lips. She believed this was the good part. “Felicity was leaving the house and she shouted at him saying he was a boring old man and it showed. She didn’t want to end up a wrinkled prune like him. She said he was stuck in a rut and should live a little, move with the times.”
“How did you hear all that?” asked Sergeant Tisdale.
Maud felt guilty and knew it showed. “I was watering the garden.”
With reluctance, Sergeant Tisdale rose from the comfort of the chair and said “Hurt feelings yes, murder no. An argument like that doesn’t indicate Angus would have been angry enough to commit murder.”
Maud was crestfallen. She had hoped Sergeant Tisdale would look into it for her. However, his next words brightened her outlook.
“I’ll call on Angus tomorrow, just for a little man-to-man talk. But I’m not promising anything. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for Felicity’s absence.”
As he walked towards the door, Maud followed him and voiced her main worry. “I certainly hope Angus is not a serial killer or I may be next on his list.”
Sergeant Tisdale assured her that normal people don’t turn into serial killers overnight. He thanked her for the afternoon tea and was just about to cross the threshold when he paused. He asked Maud if she had seen or spoken to either of the McDowells in the past week.
“No, except for partially seeing Angus at the window,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“We don’t know if that person in the house across the road is actually a McDowell. It could be anyone.”
As far as Maud was concerned, their conversation had taken a turn for the worst. She was horrified to think that perhaps both McDowells were murder victims.
“Oh,” said Maud. “Both murdered.”
She opened and shut her mouth then managed to utter “Oh, Ron.”
Sergeant Tisdale told her how this particular thought had been niggling at the back of his mind. Maud couldn’t tell if he was serious. “Don’t worry,” he said and gave her elbow a squeeze. “Just speculating out loud. Not a very plausible scenario. Also, if someone was in there house-sitting, I’m sure you would have witnessed other comings and goings.”
“And surely they would have told me if they were going away?” said Maud. She felt indignant at the very idea of being excluded from this information.
“Not necessarily,” said the Sergeant. “For example, they might have been too embarrassed to say they were going to a nudist camp.”
Despite herself, Maud laughed. It was an unlikely event as far as she was concerned. She said if that was the case, she would never be tempted to join them.
“Shame,” said Sergeant Tisdale.
As she closed the front door, she was aware that the Sergeant’s look was one of interrupted longing. She assumed he was disappointed he had not been invited to dinner. With a final vacuum of the armchair, she dismissed the flaws of men because a plan of action had already germinated in her fertile mind.
Dusk had melted into darkness and the clock numerals glowed towards midnight as Maud changed her clothes. She put on her black slacks and a dark blue shirt which she buttoned to the top. In the wardrobe she found a black cap her nephew had left behind. Once it was firmly clamped on her head, she surveyed the effect and was satisfied she looked slinky enough to blend into the night.
“Now for a bit of sneak and peek,” she whispered to the mirror.
At first, Maud thought it would be a good idea to dig up the grave-like mound beside the McDowell’s jacaranda tree but visions of a gruesome discovery quickly ended that notion. Now she wanted to see who was in the McDowell house.
She crossed the dimly lit road, opened the wooden gate and tiptoed across the springy lawn. The act of trespass did not enter her mind. She headed for the side of the house because, she reasoned, it was less visible from the road and more likely to have an open window. Startled by a creature rustling in the shrubbery, she paused and held her breath. It was then she heard another sound. The sound of digging. Maud was sure her heart skipped a beat.
“Caught in the act,” she thought. Surprised at her bravery, she moved forward. She wanted to see who was doing the dirty work.
“Maybe the body is being moved?” This thought made her shudder.
Maud crept along paving stones as she followed the noise around the corner of the old house. Dull light from an open doorway partially lit the back garden. There, hunched over the newly-dug garden bed, was a shadowy figure wearing heavy grey overalls and thick gloves. Although she only had a back view, Maud guessed it was Angus. She could distinguish his movements and watched him dig at the soil with a small trowel.
Suddenly her bravado faded and Maud lost her nerve. She couldn’t tackle him and she certainly couldn’t accuse him of anything. It was too tricky, too dangerous even. Inwardly she chastised herself for doing such a foolhardy thing.
As she cursed her impulsive behaviour, her innermost thoughts screamed in a high pitched voice “Run, run now,” but she willed herself to stay calm.
She started to back away. As she moved slowly down the path, she felt for the stability of the wall. Without warning, she stood on a loosely coiled water hose and staggered. It twisted around her ankle. The more she flayed, the more entangled she became until the hose wrapped around her leg. Finally she fell backwards and plonked down in a puddle of water.
The silhouette jumped up and ran over to her. Two sturdy boots halted in front of her downcast eyes. Maud did not want to look up. She did not want a confrontation. She knew she was cured of sleuthing for life. One steel capped boot tapped with intimidation as she forced herself to look upwards.
In the same instant she raised her eyes, the backlit figure spoke.
“Maud Fitch,” said a female voice. “What on earth are you doing spying on me in the middle of the night?”
“Felicity! You’re safe!” cried Maud, flooded with relief.
“Of course,” said Felicity. “Now answer my question.”
Maud gulped. “I thought you were dead.”
“Obviously not,” said Felicity.
“But, but,” stammered Maud, “why are you dressed in Angus’ clothes?”
“To do a spot of gardening,” said Felicity.
Maud felt bold enough to ask for some assistance. Felicity helped her untangle the garden hose and she stood upright. As she brushed at her damp slacks, Maud saw a line of potted plants waiting to be transplanted.
Unable to resist, she said “Why do it at this time of night?”
“Planting by the lunar cycle,” said Felicity.
“Angus does the gardening. Where is he?”
“None of your business,” said Felicity. She appeared about to add something, instead she pulled off the gardening gloves and shoving them into a plastic bucket.
“You didn’t…” Maud’s voice faded.
Felicity shot her a sly grin. “You reckon I’ve bumped him off and buried him in the garden, don’t you?”
Maud nodded and wondered how fast she could run.
“I could easily do that to you,” said Felicity matter-of-factly, “and nobody would ever know.”
“Ron Tisdale would,” said Maud, then covered her mouth.
“Will the good Sergeant be arriving next?”
“Yes,” lied Maud.
Felicity appeared unfazed by this and Maud watched as she swiftly removed the stained overalls. Unfortunately it was too shadowy for Maud to tell if the marks were made by grass or blood. Felicity jammed the overalls into the plastic bucket and stood there wearing a pair of tight jeans and a flattering top. To Maud’s dismay, Felicity then snatched up a pair of pruning shears and shook them menacingly at her. “You’re a nosey old sticky beak,” she said.
Maud was relieved when Felicity dropped the shears into the overcrowded bucket. She retorted “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Felicity chuckled. She sat down on the door step in the pale glow from the kitchen beyond and ran her fingers through her newly-cropped hair. It was almost a challenge.
Her attitude no longer threatened Maud but she was disconcerted when Felicity smiled and crossed her legs in a relaxed fashion. Maud wondered why her image was so cool, so casual. And, she noted with surprise, so young-looking. She thought “If Felicity is older than me then she should look older.” In fact, Felicity looked younger and more unlined than when she and Maud first met ten years ago. It took Maud a few seconds to work it out.
“You’ve had Botox injections,” she accused.
“Yes, I have. Got it done last week when I was in Sydney, only took a few hours. And I’m loving it,” said Felicity with a girlish toss of her head. “When do you think Sergeant Tisdale will get here?”
“I think you should be arrested,” Maud exploded. “Obviously you wanted a new life, a carefree younger life. You didn’t want Angus hanging around, poor old wrinkly Angus, so you killed him. Clearly the treatment has addled your brain.”
“You’re the one who’s addled.” Felicity glared as much as the Botox treatment would allow. “Angus got knifed. It was no accident.” She paused and straightened her sleeve. “I persuaded him to go under the knife. I’ve been covering for him while he recuperates from cosmetic surgery.” Maud was dumbfounded. “Angus, cosmetic surgery? Never!”
“It’s true,” said Felicity. “It’s our little secret. Please don’t give the game away. He should be home tomorrow so you can check out the work for yourself.”
“I won’t be coming back, I couldn’t imagine anything more awful. What a ludicrous thing to do,” shouted Maud. She turned and stormed off before she realised her behaviour was excessive but she had gone too far to make amends. As she rounded the corner, she yelled over her shoulder “You’re a couple of vain peacocks.”
She muttered all the way home about people who couldn’t grow old gracefully, who were image obsessed and wanted immortality through the process of body distortion.
“I love my wrinkles,” she said defiantly. Then wondered if it was true.
* * *
Next day, Maud had driven home from work and cruised down the last familiar stretch of her own road when she saw Sergeant Tisdale’s police vehicle pull away from the kerb outside the McDowell residence. For her own benefit, she needed to know what he had been told about her unseemly actions and started to formulate an excuse.
She flashed the headlights then flagged him down with windmill-like arm gestures. The Sergeant appeared both annoyed and amused but pulled over good-naturedly and lowered his car window.
Maud was ready with her questions but he spoke first.
“I’ve solved the McDowell mystery,” he said.
Maud went to speak but he kept talking. “Old Angus and Felicity are there. He told me that both he and Felicity had each taken a short vacation.”
She gave a wary nod.
Sergeant Tisdale continued “The separation must have done them both the world of good. They look ten years younger.” Maud smiled. At that moment, she experienced a revelation. She decided that saving face was not as important as keeping a friend’s secret. Sergeant Tisdale looked at her expectantly. “Glad to hear it,” was all she said.
Maud accelerated sharply and left the Sergeant behind without a second glance.
She knew he wouldn’t give up on her that easily and she had biscuits to bake.
(With my thanks to Maud Fitch, friend and fellow writer)
Fleur was sick and tired of the competition rules, regulations and conditions which surround the submission of a manuscript. She decided to cheat the system. But one of the worst things is to think you are going to get caught, that you are double-dealing the system, that you’ve done something you shouldn’t have done. Be self-assured?
“Sure, you justify it to yourself that you aren’t going to win a prize in that writers competition anyway so what the heck, give it your best shot, enter four competitions with the same short story under 3,000 words.” Fleur finds her handbag and house keys. “And who cares? First world problems, right? They can only disqualify me. They’ll get an entry fee without the hard slog. What hey, they will do the hard work first. Judges will find out later that I’ve cheated. Well, not exactly cheated, more bent the rules.”
Fleur submitted the exact same story to four different organisations in the hope that one would succeed. Of course, deep down she knows that the story will not succeed. But there’s that tiny little glimmering hope that one entry will win. “Ha,” snaps Fleur’s psyche, ‘you’ll win first, second or third place in each competition and cause a furore.” There will be a lot of huffing and puffing, but Fleur says “I don’t care! Keep the entry fees, frankly I don’t care!” There will be tedious emails pointing out her indiscretion and how naughty she’s been – she don’t care! They can sort it out by themselves. Go ahead, eliminate her, but questions sneak through before the front door closes.
Fleur’s shoes pound the pavement as her rant continues “At the time I think I said to myself that I had not submitted to another competition, however, by the last entry I had. And I didn’t change a word. But here’s two questions for you. How come books and authors can win the Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, Ned Kelly Award, Prix Goncourt, Man Booker Prize, etc, even though they have already won another prize? Or magazine articles which have been reprinted elsewhere with author permission? Like I said, I don’t care!”
“Please, please,” Fleur takes a breath “don’t let me win a place in any more than one competition. I couldn’t stand the hassle. As a matter of fact I don’t quite understand why I did it. Well, in the case of the smaller organisation, I think I did it out of pity to bolster their entry numbers. And in the case of the larger organisation, I think I did it out of spite to prick their egotistical speech bubbles.”
Fleur is expounding this tirade now because three of the organisations have announced their cut-off date, entries have closed. The minor one is still struggling on. “Oh,” she says, her pace slowing “I forgot to mention that I have submitted another manuscript, quite a different story but the same copy to two interstate writing competitions. Their game plans are miles apart, one laidback and one stiff and starchy. The story is rather laidback itself so I will be interested to see if it gets anywhere, I do like it.”
On the subject of slightly ignoring their instructions on the grounds of “get over yourselves, bloody gatekeepers” Fleur couldn’t help adding “If they don’t like it then that’s tough. I don’t care!” She knows she will have second thoughts after formal announcements are made in a few months’ time, and she voices the unsettling assumption that she may be victimised. Fleur has heard tales of editors, indeed publishing houses, blacklisting people and the writing fraternity shunning one of their own for not following the guiding principle of “doing it the right way”.
Fleur stops walking. “Publishers want unusual, they want different, but mostly they are just as rigid as the public service, any spark of individuality snuffed before it ignites. Death to the formula!” She hears her bulky envelope fall into the metal post-box and slams the flap shut. The guidelines stated that all entries must be submitted by email attachment.
Angus shuffled through a pile of bills and sent one fluttering to the floor. His son Steve stood beside the dining room table, arms folded, watching him. Every week Angus misplaced an important piece of paperwork.
“Told you it wasn’t far away.” Angus held up an electricity account.
“You should have a proper filing system, Dad,” Steve said. “One day the electricity will be cut off and you’ll wonder why you’re in the dark.”
“It’s you who’s in the dark, my lad.” Angus tapped his nose, an obscure family joke.
Steve gave a brief smile. “Let me buy you a three-drawer filing cabinet with suspension files and alphabetical tabs.”
“My manila folder is just fine,” said Angus, holding up a battered cream folder with various names crossed out and a succession of dates which finished at 1998.
“You’re damn lucky I haven’t forced you into owning a computer,” said Steve, stacking old invoices, “otherwise I’d make you pay bills online.”
“The only line I like is a fishing one,” said Angus, his mouth twitching at the corners. He couldn’t resist adding “Just ‘cos you program computers doesn’t mean I have to like ‘em.”
Steve gave a good-natured harrumph and went in search of his mobile phone. He gave a whistle and his dog Fancy raced in from the garden with her tongue lolling and eyes gleaming. “Come on, girl, it’s time to take the old bloke shopping.”
Angus knew that Fancy had been foraging in the garden by the dirt clinging to her paws. “Glad someone likes my little courtyard,” he said. She placed a paw on his bony knee and he ruffled her ears. “No treats yet.”
Before they left, Angus surreptitiously swallowed a blood pressure tablet.
They took Steve’s car and drove into town, parking on a broken two-hour meter. At the shopping centre, Angus went straight to the rawhide-smelling pet store and bought a packet of dog treats.
“One hundred percent pure beef,” he read.
“You spoil the dog,” said Steve.
Angus jutted his jaw but said nothing.
At the next stop, Angus purchased postage stamps and talked with the postmaster.
“Steve’s going to make me a grandfather in a couple of week’s time.” His thoughts strayed and he said quietly, “That will certainly change things.”
Steve tapped his watch and mouthed the word “Coffee”. Angus knew he had just two minutes to pay the electricity bill. He said to the postmaster, “Can’t miss out on my Café Bijou treat.”
Leaving the post office, they walked a short distance to the café, pausing once for Angus to catch his breath.
“When can we eat at a healthy place?” Steve sounded like a five year old child.
“When I’m gone,” said Angus, taking off his sweaty Akubra and fanning himself. The steps going into the café were uneven and he tripped.
“Steady.” Steve offered his arm but Angus shook his head.
Café Bijou served a wide range of high fat, carb-loaded meals and well sweetened desserts. Angus enjoyed the never-ending cups of coffee served by the eighty year old waitress Dita. Her hands had started to shake but she didn’t spill their coffees.
“Dita, you’re a living treasure,” said Angus. He took a swipe at her apron bow as she ambled away.
“Ah, ha,” Dita crowed, “you never could hit me backside.”
“Don’t know why––it’s broad enough,” said Angus in an aside to Steve, who hung his head and started tapping on his phone. Angus handed the menu to him. “I bet you’ll check which sandwiches have the least amount of red meat.”
“Do you have the slightest idea what cholesterol is?” asked Steve.
Angus ignored him and leaned over to take a newspaper off the top of a bundle. “Same stories, just a different way of writing ‘em. If sporting heroes stopped screwing up their lives, the media would be stumped for ideas. Look, one of them died from a health-nut overdose.” Steve rolled his eyes.
As they were leaving, the treasurer of the bowls club halted Angus in the doorway, asking for a donation for their sponsored charity. Angus obliged but the chitchat got to him. Shifting his weight from foot to foot, he said “I’m going shopping with my boy Steve. He’s pretty busy these days. Every moment counts.” With apologies, he pursued Steve’s figure down the street, heading in the direction of the supermarket, his least favourite place.
Fancy had been asleep in the car but woke when she heard their voices returning. They loaded the grocery bags into the boot.
“We’ve got time to look at a new filing system,” said Steve.
“Let’s do it another time.”
“It would help keep your records more organised, Dad.”
“It’s just how I like it,” said Angus and slipped a dried treat to Fancy.
Once on the road, they travelled in silence until Angus saw Steve glance at him in a melancholy way.
“The doc said my new pills are working just fine,” said Angus, aware that his illness hung between them, an unseen yet active enemy. “I don’t have another appointment until next month.”
Steve nodded. “Good.”
Angus didn’t add that the surgeon had said he may not be allowed to drive again.
He watched Steve negotiate a corner. “You’re a good driver, Steve. Shame I never taught you how to drive a ute across a furrowed paddock.”
“I was too young. Then the farm was sold.” Steve toyed with the digital controls on the dashboard. “You did more for me in other ways.”
After awhile, Angus said, “Can we take a different route home?”
“That sounds ominous,” said Steve but obliged by turning off the main highway.
The rural landscape was sparsely treed with very few farm buildings.
Without warning, Angus said “Stop!” He asked Steve to pull over outside an old barn-like warehouse with an adjoining timber yard.
“I reckon we could make our own filing cabinet, don’t you?” said Angus.
The old lady across the road died alone but at a good age after a good life, well, that’s what the family said as they stripped her house of all its fixtures, fittings and 1960s furniture. They singled me out from the group of neighbours on the front verandah and asked me if I would like anything from Mary’s junk, er, they cleared their throats, her mementos and stuff. I raced home to my mother and being politely greedy I raced back with her message that we’d take anything they didn’t want, and also Mary was a lovely old gal. She was too, she used to worked at the university and was clever, always keeping up with radio bulletins and had newspapers delivered from London and New York.
Mrs Anglesea and her toddler were standing at their front gate, wiping eyes and sniffing about poor Mr Roberto gone, gone forever. No more bark-bark said the toddler. Mary’s terrier Mr Roberto had been bundled into a pet carrier and taken to the local vet. The carrier came back empty. Even my mother blinked at that. But to help the family with their clear-out, she gave them a load of flattened cardboard boxes from a high-end removalist company. My mother didn’t know they cost money so it wasn’t until she saw them in the back of some bloke’s ute did she twig that they’d sold them on.
So, it was with the feeling of recompense that we were offered, and graciously received said my mother, a framed drawing of a grey English village, a chrome-legged brown laminated table and an old armchair. I was pretty annoyed we hadn’t been given the choice of some of the good things like her TV or bookcase or favourite figurines but I had already spotted a woman trundling them out to her white van. I knew she sold stuff on eBay and sent them a million miles away. I wondered if Mary had followed her belongings or left her soul in the house like my mother said she would have . . .
AUTHOR NOTE This story has been temporarily withdrawn . . . it was rewritten, submitted, and subsequently awarded Third Place (and won a cash prize) in a short story writing competition with the option for publication.
“It’s like a luxury hotel in here,” said Penny to Cleo, who was draped across a chair in the lounge room of Pandanus Palms psychiatric hospital, a pink hibiscus tucked behind her ear. They were discussing the merits of combining tropical plants and plush furniture with the plastic chandelier.
“It’s done on movie sets to create an illusion of opulence,” said Cleo. She sat up and stretched her arms. She gave a yelp. “That new guy Tom grabbed me too hard in the final scene last night.”
Penny knew Tom. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to,” she said.
Cleo surveyed the bruises on her arms. She noticed marks on her wrists. “The make-up people forgot to remove my scars.”
Penny was going to change the subject but fortunately Cleo yawned.
“You’re getting tired, dear.” Penny began to gather her things. “I’d better go.”
Cleo rubbed her eyes and blinked rapidly. “Did you see him?”
Penny spun around but there was no-one else in the room. The air was still and heavy with the perfume from a flowering orchid. “Who?”
“The producer. He looked in the window.” Cleo sat stiffly in the chair, staring at the window like an unblinking cat.
Penny readied herself for an outburst. “I’ll buzz for the––” she began.
Suddenly Cleo jumped up and ran to the window.
“I won’t go back into his hell-hole of a studio.” She tugged frantically at the heavy, brocade curtains. Once closed, the dimness appeared to satisfy her but she paced up and down with clenched fists. “He was checking the spot where the stunt man fell. They don’t know why he toppled out the window. It wasn’t in the rehearsal script.”
She went to the curtains and peeked out. “Thank God, he’s gone.”
Penny leaned over and pushed the nurse’s call buzzer. “You can buzz all you want, the waiter service is atrocious,” said Cleo. “When they do come, they hold you down and force you to eat.” She started to twirl around the room, knocking into furniture. Her medication is wearing off fast, thought Penny. She felt unsafe. “Stop it!” she shouted.
Cleo sat down on the floor, a dazed look on her face. “It’s dark in here,” she said, wrapping her arms around her ribcage. “This is what that lady in the buckled up jacket does.”
Penny went to the window and opened the curtains. Summer sunlight flooded back into the room. Cleo winced. “That spotlight is too bright.”
“I’ll tell the lighting technician,” Penny said. She hurried from the room and saw that the long white hallway was empty. The staff must be at the press conference, she thought.
After straightening a painting with shaking fingers, Penny had an idea and returned to the lounge room.
“The director says the cast can take a break,” she told Cleo.
“About time. Scene after scene and none of them mine. I’m freezing my butt off waiting for my audition cue and it never comes. Boredom and suicide are the same thing.” Cleo again paced the floor.
Penny recognised the first signs of her hourly ritual. Cleo went through the motions of taking an imaginary cigarette from its packet, putting it in her mouth and lighting it. With a noise of disgust, she tossed the cigarette on the carpet. Quickly, she stamped it out. “Have to save oxygen,” she said. “The door shouldn’t be closed. It’s the stunt man’s idea. ‘Get off me,’ I tell him. He knows I don’t like small spaces. The door is made of steel. Hey, HEY, can anyone hear me? This isn’t funny, guys. The sound of nothing is pressing into my ear drums. The silence will squash my head. Let me OUT!”
Penny made cutting actions with her finger across her throat. “The cameras have stopped rolling.”
“I need warm soup,” said Cleo, her teeth chattering. “Where’s the c-catering van?”
“Think about something else, dear,” Penny said, hoping a nurse was on the way.
“Remember when you were little? You said if something went wrong, you’d make-believe. It’s fun to pretend you’re another person. You can be anything you set your mind to.”
“That box room was too strong, it over-powered my mind.” Tears started to form in Cleo’s eyes. “I didn’t want to play a dead person. The box was trying to kill off my character––it wanted to be my coffin.”
“You lasted a lot longer than most people would, given the circumstances.” Penny lead Cleo to a couch and sat with her, gently smoothing her hair. After awhile, two people entered the room, Cleo’s doctor and a new clinical nurse. Penny surreptitiously made the sign of the cross.
The nurse checked Cleo’s pulse then injected her in the middle of a bruise on her upper arm. Cleo pulled back, slowly rubbing her skin. “More pain.”
The nurse pointed to a bluish lesion and said, “I hope you gave as good as you got.”
“One of my better performances,” said Cleo, tossing her head.
With a weak smile, the doctor said, “Ready to meet your fans, Cleo?”
“No.” Cleo turned her back and toyed with a palm frond. They coaxed her into leaving the room and walked down several corridors until they reached an unmarked door. When it was opened, Penny hugged Cleo and left. She hated to watch that door close and wanted to be out of earshot before it slammed. In the foyer of the hospital, Penny wondered how far she should carry Cleo’s delusion. The hospital portico was swarming with staff and media representatives.
With one hand on her heart and the other on the door handle, Penny opened the front door.
A reporter pounced.
“What happened on the set of Cleo’s new movie?”
Before Penny could reply, Tom, the psychiatric nurse, ran over and grabbed her arm.
“Come with me, Penelope,” he said. “It’s time for your medication.”
Cleo is a mentally disturbed woman. She talks in riddles and, due to an apparently traumatic event on a movie set, she cannot
separate fact from fiction. She confuses the Pandanus Palms
psychiatric hospital with a film location. We are lead to believe she
has once tried suicide and that the stunt man may have caused her
Penny has “adopted” Cleo and calls her “dear”. She cares about
her and understanding her moods but is not able to help in a positive
way. She has her own set of unseen demons.
Tom is a bit player with an important part. Did he cause the bruising on Cleo’s arms?
The setting is a room with lavish décor but Cleo becomes cold and
hungry. Is she reliving an incident or just acting the part?
Is the box a padded cell or a prop gone wrong?
Does Cleo see the truth wrapped up in theatrical guise? Is she driven
by revenge to murder? When the “reveal” comes at the end, can we
guess at what was truth and what was the swirling of a delusional
mind, aided and abetted by Penny.
The two-storey farmhouse was at the top of a bare hill. The long gravel driveway wound upwards from the road, through dry, patchy grass until it reached the front door. As Susan drove to the top, she saw a dam in the valley beyond, surrounded by trees. The view impressed her with its undulating hills and differing shades of green, framed by a cloudless blue sky. Is this my escape, a comfortable home? she wondered.
Susan parked the car on level ground and looked at the unimposing entry of dull brickwork and unpainted wood. She walked across weeds growing between uneven flagstones to the porch and weather-beaten front door. She knocked as loudly as she dared without getting a splinter rammed into her knuckles. It had taken an hour to drive from the nearest town. The hurly-burly of market day was replaced by this rural solitude, the kind of serenity where sounds are muted by immeasurable distance.
She knocked again. No dogs barked and nobody stuck their head out of a window to ruffle the stillness. As the real estate agent had predicted, the part-time caretaker was not on duty today. The key, thought Susan and went back to the car to collect it. Her daughter, Audrey, was stirring and finally woke up. She looked around, stretched and asked if they’d reached the right property.
“Finally,” confirmed Susan. “We’re going to let ourselves in.” Audrey peered upward from the car window. “The place looks creepy”. “No,” said Susan, “just unloved.” She found the door key in her bag. Audrey hopped on one foot, pulling on a shoe, as they walked to the door. The big old key fitted perfectly and the solid door swung open.
Inside the house, the air was dry and cool. To Susan’s surprise the entry foyer was small but, as she expected, empty. After a debate on direction, they decided to head to the right into an unfurnished, echo-filled living room with faded remnants of mauve wallpaper. “Tiny flowers.” Audrey spoke in a whisper. “It must have been pretty once.”
“Such wonderful windows,” said Susan. She decided to call out in case the caretaker happened to be lurking nearby. “Hey––anyone here?” Her daughter jumped. “Give me some warning next time!”
Susan headed towards an archway at the back of the room, in the direction of what she presumed was the dining room and kitchen beyond. Audrey pulled her back. “Let’s go upstairs.” They went back to the staircase located unassumingly in the foyer. It was narrow and went straight up without a curve. The treads were worn and uncarpeted. On each step, dust rose from under their shoes.
Once upstairs, they split up and walked quietly from bedroom to bedroom, each imagining what the rooms must have been like fully furnished. Susan glanced into a bathroom situated on the corner of the house, hoping for a hint of décor. Sunlight struggled through gritty windows and filled the room with diffused warmth. A large bath dominated the corner and looked out over the landscape. Susan could almost see clouds of steam and fluffy towels and smell the hint of lavender soap. The beige tiling around the bath was unstained. “That’s a good thing,” she said to a beetle on the edge of the hand basin.
Audrey called to her from another room. Susan almost tiptoed down the hallway as it resonated around her, boards creaking. On the way, she noted a single, closed door before locating her daughter through a small doorway into the toilet. “It’s positively ancient,” said Audrey. “What a scream.” Susan stepped inside.
The plumbing was exposed and badly fixed into the sloping floor. A watery noise came from the cistern. The porcelain, off-white and topped by a cracked wooden seat, had a window behind it that was so large it allowed expansive views of the countryside. “That vision works both ways, doesn’t it?” Audrey said. “I wouldn’t want anyone watching me.” Susan laughed “They’d need binoculars.” Audrey said doubtful “A nice curtain would fix it.”
Susan moved aside to let Audrey leave the dismal space and tried to gauge the size of the window. Suddenly the room began to slip. The sloping floor moved under her feet, causing her to slid towards the window. She was unnerved at how quickly the momentum grew. Susan felt as though she was now being sucked towards the glass panes. The pitch of the floor became steeper and steeper until she was hanging on to the metal door handle, desperate to save herself from falling.
Susan scrabbled frantically, breathless and unable to shout for help. She pulled herself up until she found a firm foothold against the doorframe and the hallway floor. With a heave, she pushed herself back through the threshold and stumbled into the hallway. The door swung back and forth a few times as if laughing before it slammed shut.
With a pounding heart and blood was rushing through her body, roaring in her ears, Susan dusted herself off with shaking hands. She was unsure if she’d imagined it. She couldn’t force herself to look back, afraid of what might spring out from behind the door.
Audrey came back. “You look awful. What happened?” “Heaven knows,” gasped Susan and bent double. “I don’t think that toilet likes me.” Audrey’s eyes widened as she peered around the door. “The floor is on a terrible slope.” Susan wrinkled her forehead. “More to the point, why?” Her daughter had a vivid imagination. “I’m going to wait in the car.”
Susan waited until she heard Audrey walk downstairs then watched her through a front window as she got into the car. As she recovered from her slippery encounter, an inquisitive streak in Susan overtook her common sense. She dismissed the toilet’s poor carpentry under the heading of old age. She wanted to see if any rooms at the back of the house were habitable. Without deliberation, Susan turned the knob on the only unopened door in the grimy passage.
Inside, the air was warm and fragrant. There was a riot of colour throughout the room. Rainbows sparked out from a crystal lamp shade. Floral drapes trailed across the floor and plump cushions surrounded children who played on woven purple rugs, unaware of her presence. A large stone fireplace glowed at the far end of the room and, to the side, a cat slept in a sagging armchair.
A man was talking to a woman while he carved roasted meat at a table covered by a velvet cloth and laid with silver cutlery. The woman, wearing a vivid red blouse, saw Susan first and waved cheerfully. She beckoned at Susan to enter. A jolly couple nearby chorused the woman’s cries of “Come in, come in.” The first thought to enter Susan’s mind was that she had intruded. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your meal.”
“Nonsense,” they said and waved steaming mugs of drink. The man carving the roast waved his knife, gesturing her into the room. Better not join them, thought Susan, anything could happen. She looked longingly at the food-laden table then backed out of the room, smiled as politely as she could and shut the door. She hurried out of the house, confused over what had occurred. She locked the front door, slipped the key into her pocket and patted it for good measure.
“You look funny again,” said Audrey and brushed a cobweb off her hair. “I think,” Susan paused. “I think I just met the original owners.” Audrey groaned “Not again?” She pouted and said she didn’t believe her mother this time. As far as she was concerned, except for the toilet, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the old house. Susan rose to the challenge and gave her a lucid description. “They’ve never spoken to me like this before.”
After listening and thoughtfully tapping her chin, Audrey picked up the real estate prospectus and quickly thumbed through it. She held it up and read aloud, “The premises has facility for oil heating.” She snapped the brochure “There’s one way to find out if they are ghosts or not. We can look for smoke coming from a real chimney.” Audrey had jumped out of the car and was walking around the corner of the house before Susan could gather her wits and follow.
Apart from several outbuildings, the back of the house was as barren as the front with no evidence that a garden may have grown there. In an artistic way, Susan found its uncluttered drabness pleasing. She imagined lavender bushes growing here, out of the wind. With a nudge, Audrey brought her out of her landscaping reverie. “Nothing!”
Susan looked up. Between the blank walls and windows, the trace of a thick scar ran down from the upper wall to the ground where brick masonry had been patched with concrete. “Removed?” she said. “I’m almost disappointed.” Audrey gave her a lopsided smile. “You’re either going mad or someone is trying to scare us off.”
“Why don’t you go back inside and have a look?” said Susan. “You are mad.” Audrey tossed her hands in the air. “I wouldn’t go back inside if you paid me.” She stomped back in the direction of the car. “That’s another property crossed off our list.”
“We’ll just have to stay in the house your Dad built,” sighed Susan, “if he’ll let us.” Audrey’s look eloquently conveyed the words fat chance.
Susan guessed the real estate agent would be starting to get exasperated with her. Every old house they had inspected and all the auctions they had attended, finished in the same way. The first owners still occupied their premises. Strangely, except for Susan, no-one else could see these deceased residents. In the beginning, she had thought she could live around them but that didn’t seem right. It was like house-sharing, not home-ownership.
Susan started the engine. “I’ve had enough of intruding on these people, going into their homes uninvited and catching them off-guard.” Audrey pointed her thumb over her shoulder at the house. “From what you said, that lot seemed okay.” With a grimace, Susan said “Forget it, tomorrow we’re looking at brand new townhouses.”
Susan swung the car around and drove slowly down the dusty driveway back onto the bitumen road. That room had such a happy feel, she mused, perhaps the house isn’t unloved after all. As the trees in the valley closed ranks, the house began to disappear from view until only the rooftop was visible. Susan took one last look and noticed a thin trail of smoke rising into the still air.
AUTHOR NOTE:For those readers who like a possibly more romantic ending, the second part of “Home Comfort” follows:
Susan did not want to be drawn into a lengthy discussion with the real estate agent over the suitability of the old farmhouse. She rehearsed her opening line. “It’s obvious why we rejected it.” Her voice lacked conviction. “Decrepit,” said Audrey and gave her a sideways glance.
To Susan’s relief, the real estate agent took the house key without a word. He was ducking and diving between filing cabinets and stationery drawers, hunting for a pen. In the absence of his receptionist, he was attempting to enter data into an unwilling computer and answer the phones. Audrey took pity on him and answered a call, taking a message. Susan was mortified but the realtor took it in his stride.
“We’re returning to the city tomorrow,” said Susan and thanked him. “I regret the unsuccessful outcome,” he said, parrot-fashion but not without sincerity. “Did you see the local caretaker?”
“I saw a family.” With a hint of a smile, Susan added “I’ll let them rest in peace.” The agent was not listening. “It is rather quiet up there, isn’t it?” He started searching for a paper clip and sent a sheaf of papers cascading onto the floor. Audrey cried out and pounced onto a pale grey sheet of paper. It had been folded and unfolded many times and was fuzzy around the edges. “Townhouses,” she read. “Just what we’re after!”
“Selling like hotcakes,” mumbled the real estate agent. “I’ll give Ben a call. He can give you a guided tour.” Within an hour, Susan and Audrey were standing on the lawn outside a new townhouse built in the style of a much older terrace house. The wrought iron lacework would look great with a flowering vine, thought Susan.
Ben was tall and friendly and had a disarming way of staring deeply into Susan’s eyes as he spoke. Nothing else existed while he told her about the suburb and mod cons of the townhouse, the last one at the end of the terrace row. “It’s the only one left for sale,” he said. His smile made her feel absurdly warm. Also, he looked vaguely familiar. Susan blinked a few times. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Have we met before?” Ben’s tanned face looked as though he was having difficulty pigeon-holing her and he rubbed his jawline. “Did you go to the furniture auction at Lavender Lane farm?” Susan wondered if this was his favourite pick-up line. “That name doesn’t sound familiar.” She tried not to catch Audrey’s eye because she was fairly sure Audrey was winking furiously and just short of nudging her in the ribs. “Do you live there?” she asked.
“Generations of my family used to own it.” Ben described the route they had driven earlier in the day. He outlined a house on a hill. His description of a hillside once covered in lavender bushes made tears form in Susan’s eyes.
“She’s going all mushy,” said Audrey. Ben shuffled his feet. “Are you allergic to lavender?” Susan gave a weak smile and tried to quell her emotions as she searched through her handbag for a tissue. “I’ve got a bad case of ESP.” Ben gestured towards an outdoor seat. It reinforced Susan’s vision of another beckoning man. Audrey let out a squeal. “Oh, you mean the ghost house!” Ben’s face lightened. “They do reckon it’s haunted.”
“Your relatives still live there,” said Susan. Weak-kneed, she sat on the bench. She grasped an old tissue and, as she pulled it out, the much-folded piece of paper flipped out onto the mown grass. As before, Audrey swooped down and picked it up, only this time it was blank. In a hushed voice, she explained to Ben that it was a leaflet advertising the townhouses, “But the words have faded away.” Ben frowned “We didn’t print leaflets.”
Susan reacted by slapping her own knee. It broke the sombre mood and cleared her head. “I think we’ve been set up,” she said. Ben turned the ragged piece of paper over and over in his hands. “By my family?” He appeared sceptical, unsure about the motive behind Susan’s words. “By a set of coincidences,” replied Susan. “Let’s go on that guided tour.”
Audrey was on the doorstep before she had finished speaking. Ben ushered them down the corridor, through the freshly-painted townhouse. “First, I have to show you the rear garden.” The curtains were drawn so he took them to the back door. “Normally you can walk straight into the garden through the French doors.” Audrey sighed and stared at the back of Ben’s head. “How romantic.”
With a flourish, Ben stood back so they could precede him. His smile was as radiant as the rows of fragrant young lavender bushes lining the path in the cottage garden. “Cultivated from the original farm plants,” he said with obvious pride.
Susan was momentarily lost for words. Her mind was in turmoil, alternating between the real and the imagined. Slowly the distinctive perfume wafted around her. She breathed deeply and let the lavender soothe her. An inner calmness gradually infused her muscles and she relaxed. As they stood quietly in the warm sun, Susan tapped her shoe on the paving. “I recognise the brickwork.” Ben smiled “It’s from the old farmhouse chimney.”
Audrey moved between Susan and Ben and linked arms. Her look was innocent. “Did we follow Lavender Lane to a dead end?” Susan laughed. “I think it lead us home.”
A snowflake fell on Anne’s shoulder as she walked across the muddy track between the ski lodge and the cabins. Her boots were of no concern, she was more worried about slipping over in the new jacket she’d just purchased for an exorbitant sum in the gift shop.
The shop assistant had jabbed at the ski jacket with her bandaged hand and grimaced. “Guaranteed waterproof.”
The jacket was a unisex design, muted green with inserted grey panels. It was a generous length, full of padding, zips and reinforced stitching. A stylised logo was sewn on the high collar, a small discreet statement of affluence. “Stupid really,” thought Anne. “After today, I won’t be wearing it again.”
A product of the Sunshine State, Anne supposed her sister in Tasmania might like its Antarctic weight. Still, today it was worth its weight in gold. Today it would earn its expensive price tag by stopping her from freezing to death when the snowmobile crashed into a gnarled snow gum. Sadly Paul, her fiancé of one month, would not survive. A branch would spear him in the chest and he would die at the scene.
With numb fingers, Anne cleaned the cloying mud off her boots using a sharp stick. Inside the beautifully-appointed living room, the ambience enveloped her like warm honey, contrasting with the glance Paul shot her from under his dark lashes.
“Right,” he said, “are we ready to roll?”
While he secured their ski equipment, Anne mounted the twin seater snowmobile and positioned a basket of rations on the seat. “Alcohol was a contributing factor” stated the soon-to-be tragic accident report which ran grimly through her mind.
Their route to the plateau was empty, a vast tract of whiteness stretching out before them. The chalet was quickly lost to sight and they hadn’t travelled far when Paul pulled over, skidding in the pristine snow.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing across the undulating tundra.
A barely visible arm was waving listlessly just above the snow line. Anne squinted into the glare. She had an agenda and feigned ignorance.
A sense of urgency crept into Paul’s tone. “Look, over there. Somebody’s crashed.”
Before Anne could protest, Paul had swung the vehicle around and was heading in the direction of a stricken form.
When they reached the spot, they found a skier laying crumpled in the churned snow. Anne experienced a moment of revelation. She stifled a snort. “Typical.”
It was the woman from the cabin next to theirs, all mouth, red claws and stiff blonde hair.
With athletic confidence, Paul jumped out of the snowmobile and landed beside her. “Oh shit, Verity, what happened?”
After much wailing, Verity explained that her leg felt broken and she couldn’t get up.
Paul squeezed her ungloved hand, his voice rising in dismay. “How long have you been here?”
“Hours,” she wept, “I’m freezing, I can’t feel my legs.”
Anne saw what Verity didn’t know. One leg had been skewered by a snapped ski pole and blood was seeping behind her into the snow.
Fighting a wave of nausea, exacerbated by Verity’s liberally applied perfume, Anne peered closer.
“The woman looks like she’s dressed for a cocktail party,” she thought, “And she used the wrong ski pole.” She swallowed the words “That’s mine.” It was a struggle to remain silent in the face of such duplicity. Anne realised a very different scenario had been planned.
Paul turned to Anne, his face rigid. “Give me your jacket.”
He wrenched it off, twisting her body. “Get on the ski buggy and go back for help. Fast as you can! I’ll try to stop the bleeding.”
Anne’s eyes flashed with anger. Suppressing her temper at this unforseen turn of events, she drove the snowmobile back down the slope. Half way to the emergency post, she shoved the provisions off the seat into a snow drift. The champagne would be well chilled. She withdrew the sharp stick from her ski boot and it followed the abandoned basket. It hurt to leave her brand new jacket. On the other hand, she would also leave Paul and take great pleasure in selling off their engagement gifts.
Several months later, Verity was preparing for a move to Perth and a new boyfriend. She began cleaning out her wardrobe. She sat looking at the green polar jacket. A mixture of bitter sweet memories came with that jacket, conceivably more bitterness than she cared to recall. She rubbed a finger across the scar which gouged her cheek.
The jacket was tossed unceremoniously onto the pile of clothes destined for the charity shop. Verity hoped Anne’s jacket would keep a dirty, smelly person warm.
Laughter gurgled up like bile in her throat and she turned to her girlfriend.
“I wonder if Paul is sleeping on the streets yet?”
Her girlfriend raised hunched shoulders in a noncommittal reply.
Verity rose and limped across to her coffee cup. “It was the thrill of the chase really.
Everything deteriorate after I mixed-up the ski poles. Then that stick flicked up and hit my face.”
They stuffed the hardly-worn apparel into brightly coloured department store bags. After loading Verity’s car, a present from Paul he wasn’t getting back, they drove in silence to the charity warehouse. The only sound Verity made was to blast the horn at a cattle truck which veered into her lane.
A small woman, with bright eyes and quick movements, dashed across to a large open box. Moments earlier, she had surreptitiously watched a blonde female dump clothing into it.
As she leaned over the cardboard box, the sides buckled inward and the box nearly swallowed her. The first jacket she saw was perfect. The woman knew that this green jacket would suit her burly son-in-law who laboured in all weathers. She walked to the counter with it firmly clamped in her hands.
The cashier barely moved her eyes from the screen. “Twenty-five dollars.”
With a gulp, the small woman said “It doesn’t have a price tag on it. Maybe it’s cheaper?” She smoothed the crinkled logo repeatedly with her thumb.
“Listen, love,” the cashier said, her whole body exuding weariness, “you shouldn’t have taken it out of that box, it ain’t been sorted yet.”
“Could you check for me, please?” said the small woman, straining on tiptoe, losing her battle to conduct a face-to-face conversation.
A gleam lit the cashier’s eyes. “I’ll have to nick out the back and check with the warehouse manager.” As she spoke, she scooped up a packet of cigarettes.
“Hey, Macro, will ya take over for me, mate?”
Macro knew it wasn’t a question. As she vanished through a door marked Staff Only, he settled his long, lanky frame into her warm chair and crossed his legs. The small woman knew that relief cashiers were not bound by the same hard and fast rules of others and Macro proved this point.
“Ten bucks, little Kathleen.” He leaned over the counter. “Go before she gets back, sweetheart.”
Kathleen paid with coins and thanked him profusely. She scurried out the door and down the street. Once around the corner, she stopped to catch her breath, air rasping into her lungs. Her fingers dug into the depth of those warmly lined pockets and she felt the colouring book and pencils she’d nicked for her granddaughter.
Kathleen said she didn’t own a mobile phone “Because they caused ear cancer.” So, when she arrived home, a message was waiting on her back door. The tack had punctured the notepaper like an exclamation mark at the end of the word “boy”.
Kathleen headed back to the bus stop with an empty stomach and a head full of premature baby scenarios. She prayed for her sixth grandson.
When she alighted at the hospital, she stopped dead in her tracks. “Where’s the jacket? Did I leave it on the bus?”
Startled, her heart lurched in her chest and she could hear the blood roaring in her ears. It was unseasonably warm. Her temperature soared as she willed herself to stay calm.
“What have I done with it?”
She patted her chest in consternation, then a green cuff caught her eye. Kathleen cautiously held out her arm. A sudden surge of relief left her feeling weak at the knees.
Swamped by ice-repelling warmth, Kathleen peeled off the jacket. With a reddened face and thin brown hair plastered to her skull, she dragged the seemingly leaden garment through the double doors of the maternity ward.
There was no crib beside the bed and judging by the look of the machines around her daughter, there had been complications. Kathleen wasn’t strong around illness. The four-bed ward began to swim and tilt alarmingly. She tottered over to a hard-looking chair next to the bed. Her daughter’s round face showed dismay but Kathleen grasped the back of the chair, determined to offer consoling words. A hoarse sound escaped from Kathleen’s lips but was cut short by her daughter’s scream; a scream which sounded suspiciously like “Muuum”.
When little Kathleen came round, a nurse was asking her to breathe slowly and evenly through an oxygen mask. Kathleen listened to her babble on about someone with a weak heart and years of food with poor nutritional value.
The nurse paused to adjust a valve and Kathleen asked “Where am I? Where’s my jacket?”
“You’re in the cardiac wing of the hospital, dear. Of course, your handbag’s been locked up but I didn’t see a jacket.”
Her eyes widened. “But the polar jacket. It’s green with grey––”
A sting stopped Kathleen. She looked down and saw another nurse pull a syringe out of her pale, bony arm and dab cotton wool on the injection site.
The nurse grinned. “Don’t worry, dear. It’ll turn up, just you wait and see.”
Anthony had seen the prestigious logo during his clean up.
As she tumbled, Kathleen had tipped the chair over, consequently bringing down the side cabinet and a drip stand. The whole lot had ended up in a heap, covering the ski jacket with a broken vase, crushed flowers, soggy towels and an aged handbag.
“It’s amazing how one little old lady could cause such havoc,” mused Anthony as he shovelled everything into a large black plastic bag. The maternity ward patients and visitors had been vacated so he righted the furniture and mopped the floor. To avoid scrutiny, he checked the handbag into Reception lost property. He liked to think he had a conscience.
Anthony sent the garbage bag down the chute and hastily followed it to the lower ground floor. He heaved the towels onto a clammy laundry pile and ducked down out of surveillance range. Fumbling for the precious jacket, a shard of broken vase cut his finger. With a yelp of pain, he wrenched the jacket free, trying to avoid blood droplets on the fabric.
He found a tissue in his trouser pocket. His finger began to throb and he was annoyed with himself for forgetting to leave his sports bag down in the utilities area. Now he’d have to walk through the staff zone to reach his locker. Nonchalantly holding the jacket, it proved surprisingly easy to slip by unnoticed. Attention was focused on the noise of an agitated mother causing a commotion upstairs.
An hour later Anthony was in his flat, itching to try the jacket on for size. He shook it out and gloated over the beauty of its tailoring. It fitted him like a glove. He shoved his hands into the deep pockets. A flash of pain shot through his finger and the cut reopened. He withdrew the offending orange pencil. “Kid’s junk,” he sniffed and threw the objects into a milk crate.
In front of his bedroom mirror, Anthony smoothed his ponytail and considered his image from different angles. He preened and pouted before removing the jacket. It smelled of perfume. Regardless of origins, he grinned with delight. He knew his flatmate Wilson would be jealous when he saw it.
Anthony bounced down a flight of stairs to knock on the pink front door of his girlfriend Frederica’s flat. “Maybe she wants to go out?” He lived in hope.
Frederica worked in a wine bar and obviously wasn’t at home. Which suited Anthony. He could drop by the bar before dinner, show off his new jacket and at the same time scrounge a free drink.
He arrived at the bar just as raindrops began to fall. Inside, he removed the ski jacket and was seated at a low table opposite a morose man whose conference name tag read “Paul”. He was slurping at a vodka like someone who didn’t care anymore, and definitely someone who wasn’t going to work next day.
Anthony accepted his drink from a cross-dresser with long legs who eyed off his jacket. He looked around for Frederica. He heard her delicious laugh. He couldn’t see her until she emerged through an open side door which accessed a private room. She was tugging at someone who seemed coyly reluctant to follow. Anthony almost swallowed an ice cube when he saw Wilson materialise beside her.
They stepped forward but pulled up short when they saw Anthony. Out of habit, Frederica twitched the neckline of her top. With his rendezvous interrupted and nowhere to hide, Wilson stood there unmistakably working on an excuse.
Without a word, Anthony rose and grabbed his jacket, an action which irritated Paul the drunk, and headed towards the door. Frederica was ready to make amends, rosy cheeks dimpling with apology, but before she could speak Anthony walked out of the bar.
He was glad to escape the smell of alcohol soaked carpet and the nicotine tinged breath of patrons who’d seen it all before, relieved it wasn’t them. Conversely the cut on his finger started to pulsate. “Bloody brilliant,” he growled and the notion of infection fuelled his rising anger.
The night air was misty and the bitumen road gleamed with falling rain. Aggravation merged with anger. Anthony briefly considered holding the jacket over his head. Somehow this gesture seemed feeble, as though he was cringing under it, taking shelter like a reviled lover sneaking back home.
Furious at the thought, he crossed the street against the lights and stomped through a luminous puddle which shimmered with oily rainbows. Unexpectedly his leather shoes slipped out from underneath him. The ski jacket went flying and in the split second before he hit the ground, Anthony knew he was going to fracture something important.
She kept looking over her shoulder into the gloom to make sure she wasn’t being followed down the alley. Once satisfied, she wrapped the jacket around her waist and tied the sleeves. She hoped it didn’t have blood on it. Hospital scavenging was risky. Taking from another hospital scavenger was riskier still. He had been crying too hard to notice.
Further along, she scaled a crumbling brick wall and dropped down into a dismal rectangular courtyard filled with rain-soaked herbs. The aroma of crushed basil wafted up to tickle her nostrils. The girl was hungry and knew Aunt Ivy would feed. In return, she would hand over this magnificent jacket. It seemed to hug her in a warm embrace, an infusion more distinct than any familial bond she had known. Fleetingly, she examined this raw thought and then dismissed it. Aunt Ivy’s food was enough.
After knocking with a secret code, she heard the bolts draw back and light pierced the shadows.
“Welcome back, Tuyêt,” said her Aunt.
Tuyêt replied in their language. “A little something for you.”
She unknotted the sleeves and held up her trophy. The jacket seemed to prickle her palms. It stung a scar on her wrist as it was drawn from her grasp. She frowned, but not so her Aunt would notice, and slipped into the sweet smelling kitchen. Steaming bowls of noodles and rice were placed on the table and while Tuyêt ate, she watched her Aunt thoroughly check the jacket.
With a knowing nod, Aunt Ivy said “It was made in your cousin’s factory.”
The girl was sceptical but her Aunt insisted. She held up the jacket which she had turned inside out. “See, here on the lining, the factory mark. Also, it bears your cousin Lanh’s sign.”
The felt pen marks meant nothing to Tuyêt. To her, they were as indecipherable as ancient Egyptian. She tucked her limp hair behind her ears and raised her chin.
“Why should I care if one of my lousy cousins made it, particularly the bad one?”
With a dismissive flip of the hand designed to amuse her Aunt, she said “I don’t want it, you keep it.”
Aunt Ivy gladly accepted the jacket. She had a suitable person in mind, someone who worked hard for very little reward. Later that evening, after supper, she waited until her husband was rested before she presented it to him.
“Ivy,” he said, recoiling from the ski jacket after inspection, “you know cousin Lanh has a poisoned mind, he probably put a curse on this jacket. One thing is for sure, I couldn’t bring myself to wear it for fear its blackness would overtake me.”
Disappointed in her superstitious husband, yet fighting with her own apprehension, Ivy decided to sell the jacket. She displayed it in the window of her tired old shop just off the main road and waited patiently for a customer to buy it.
One Friday afternoon, a man wearing tailored trousers and a maple leaf badge on his crisp shirt, pushed open the front door of her shop. He blundered into the book carousel. He apologised, becoming more and more vociferous as he picked up the fallen paperbacks and outdated magazines. Ivy could tell he was having trouble asking the price of the dusty ski jacket even though he couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“Actually I’m lost but I saw that jacket in your window and just had to stop. I know quality when I see it.”
He blossomed under Ivy’s sales technique and she avoided asking him why he wanted a second-hand jacket. He supplied the information.
“Where I work, you know, we fellows need sturdy winter gear.”
He didn’t blink when Ivy told him the price and paid much more than it was worth.
“I’ll give you my business card and if you come across another of these fine coats, you let me know.”
Ivy knew she would never see another one but smiled encouragingly just the same. The name on the card was Robert, with an unpronounceable surname, and she let it flutter into the wastepaper basket under the counter.
As she watched him climb into his Lexus, Ivy took comfort in knowing that his money was earmarked for Tuyêt. The tutor had promised to persevere for another six months.
Robert’s arthritic joints creaked when he eased himself into the rental car. On twelve weeks leave from his mining job, he was leisurely passing through Sydney, heading north to the sunshine. His accountant had said “Enjoy your riches, Rob” without sarcasm or envy.
Robert tossed the ski jacket onto the front seat of the sedan and tapped the faulty GPS. He wished there was a road map in the glove box. He pulled out into the stream of traffic and his thoughts turned to the jacket, mainly because it emitted a musty odour which forced him to open a window.
He wouldn’t need the ski jacket for a while. In the meantime, he’d have it drycleaned and stored in his new girlfriend’s wardrobe. Robert remembered she used to ski. He hoped she would wear it on a trip he was planning. “The green will match her eyes. And it might come in handy when she feels cold.” He’d seen Anne shiver, especially when she talked about snow.
Out on the highway, signposts became less frequent. Robert tapped the GPS again. The screen went blank and he cursed. He heard a horn blast and looked up. A cattle truck was bearing down on him. He tried to take evasive action but his reflexes weren’t quick enough to avoid a collision.
With brakes pumping and tyres squealing, the truck sideswiped him. The force spun the Lexus around twice before the momentum plunged it through a steel guard rail and down an embankment. It rolled several times. The windscreen shattered and items flew through the gaping hole. Robert saw the ski jacket float upwards, briefly outlined by the blue sky, then flap out of sight. As the world faded to black, he heard a chuckle.
Long after Robert had surrendered to a pain-free environment, a council worker pulled up between the rescue vehicles. He scattered the grazing cows and looked over the edge.
The first thing he saw was a ski jacket draped across a clump of weeds. Further down, he saw the smashed car, swarming with ambulance officers.
Making sure no one was watching, he scrambled sideways down the embankment and picked up the unscathed jacket. Whistling, he threw it into the back of his repair truck and began to erect temporary barricades. Little Kathleen had told him to be on the lookout for a winter jacket.