♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
As we all know,
Christmas is fast approaching,
the silly season has begun,
in gift shops,
in department stores,
kids unable to settle in the classroom,
grass is brown and dry,
barbecue grills are being checked,
sunscreen is stockpiled,
food is flying off the supermarket shelves,
chlorine levels are dosed,
wrapping paper is being unfurled,
groups are having break-up parties,
bells jingle in the hands of Santa as he strolls through the mall,
queues in to the carpark,
queues out of the carpark,
decisions have to be made about Christmas lunch,
European or Australian,
the temperature is predicted to be in the high 30°s Celsius,
the air-conditioning struggles at midday,
birds welcome the water in birdbaths,
dog water bowls appear outside cafés,
hats and beach umbrellas are selling fast,
flashy new decorations for an old tree,
family car washed and waxed ready to collect grandparents,
music is Christmas themed,
commercials blare out what we need for a happy fun festive season,
there is more than one man behind Christmas,
the wealth in the world prefers to use a generic symbol,
An old lady sits alone on the edge of her bed,
tears in her eyes,
sad for what is lost,
sad for who has gone,
that t-shirt-stained boy who sits on a park bench,
heatwaves shimmering off the concrete path,
wondering if he will see his Dad,
wondering if he will get a present,
put it under the tree he created from twigs,
we need each other,
we need our friends,
text a lunch date,
money spent at Christmastime isn’t going to mean much,
if there’s nobody to reminisce with in the new year,
friends share your life whether it seems like it or not,
they are part of you.
♥ © Gretchen Bernet-Ward
“A Time to Talk”
WHEN a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
Robert Frost (1874–1963)
Poetry Collection “Mountain Interval” 1920
Every reader has book backlog. If we didn’t, there would be no such thing as the TBR, or stacks of unread ARCs, neither shelves groaning with books nor e-readers crammed with downloads. My bedside table is piled high with enticing yet unread novels and, well, you get the idea. You have book backlog, too.
There are so many excellent books in the world that I know I will never catch up—so I’m being choosy and will read what I want, when I want. And taking the sinful route of skipping pages if it’s not up to scratch.
My reading material may not be literary, it may not be controversial, it may not be popular, it may not be the latest or greatest, however, it will be a book I’m interested in from cover-to-cover. An occasional blog post is sure to come out of it, no matter how fluffy or deep the content.
‘Okay, okay, enough!’ I hear you cry. ‘When does time travel come into this?’
“A ripping English boarding-school story with a perceptive heroine and time-travel twist guaranteed to appeal to modern schoolgirls.”—Kirkus Reviews
BESWITCHED BY KATE SAUNDERS
is the kind of story which I would have loved when I was a girl. Well paced and absorbing, it is eerily accurate of all those Famous Five and Girls Own Annual stories I read yonks ago. Saunders tight writing style easily pulled me into the dilemma which rather spoilt young schoolgirl Flora Fox finds herself, viz, she gets fobbed off to boarding school and never arrives.
Actually she does arrive, but she’s zapped back in time. Instead of luxurious Penrice Hall, she arrives at St Winifred’s in pre-war 1935 where all the ‘gels’ are ever-so-British-upper-class, the underwear is scratchy and the food is awful.
As you can imagine this is a personal growth tale, cut through with humorous chronological comparisons, nightmare teachers, ripping seaside hols, scary bonding adventures and a neat twist to the enlightening finale. Jolly. Good. Fun.
I won’t go into the logistics of time travel but suffice to say the elements meld together well. Recommended for 8 to 12 year olds, although anybody can read it for a look at life when steely friendships were forged by facing boarding school adversity together.
My kidlit rating soars above five stars!
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
Squish is just a small rabbit, but he dreams big.
Squish dreams of many things including having a pet.
Squish makes a long list—a puppy would be perfect.
Squish’s best friend Twitch helps him along the way.
Squish thinks important thoughts about friendship and his future pet.
Squish waits and waits to meet his new pet—who is more wonderful than he ever dreamed.
REVIEW: There is an art to creating good children’s books and with her clear illustrations and succinct text, Katherine Battersby has shaped a beautiful story. ‘Squish Rabbit’s Pet’ is a picture book which combines thoughtfulness, fun and friendship with an eggciting ending.
COMMENT: I saw this third Squish Rabbit book at a UQP publishing event prior to its release and had to buy it. I am familiar with Katherine Battersby’s work and have met her professionally when she journeyed from Canada to Queensland. Happy reading! 🐨 🍁
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
Category: Children’s Picture Book, Children’s + Young Adult
Release Date: 3 April 2019
Publisher: The University Of Queensland Press
ISBN: 978 0 7022 6046 9
Teacher Notes: http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/store/images/Hi-RES/teachersnotes/1501/4157.pdf
Printed with a squishy cover perfect for little hands!
A thought put into words for the New Year.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
“Stella Montgomery is in disgrace.
The awful aunts, Aunt Condolence, Aunt Temperance and Aunt Deliverance, have sent her to Wakestone Hall, a grim boarding school where the disobedient are tamed and the wilful are made meek.
But when a friend disappears, Stella is determined to find her – no matter what danger she encounters.
Soon Stella is thrown headlong into the mysteries surrounding Wakestone Hall.
Will Stella save her friend in time? And will she discover – at long last – where she truly belongs?”
Stella Montgomery and Wakestone Hall – the intrigue draws to an exciting close!
Wakestone Hall is Book 3 in the Stella Montgomery Intrigues and this series has captured my imagination. My inner child responded to the mysterious and creepy goings-on in the first two books, beautifully complemented by author Judith Rossell’s own illustrations of the Victorian era. The third book is out now with a book launch due in a couple of days. I can’t wait to read it! GBW.
Information: HarperCollins Publisher
Published: 22 October 2018
Imprint: ABC Books – AU
Number Of Pages: 280
For Ages: 8+ years old
Children’s, Teenage & educational / Fantasy & magical realism (Children’s – Teenage)
SUGGESTION : READ THE FIRST TWO BOOKS BEFORE YOU SNEAK-A-PEEK AT THE CONCLUSION––read some Wakestone Hall pages here––
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
In a dread-laden atmosphere of shocking sights and smells, the transportation of four convicts to the women’s gaol Parramatta Female Factory is as grim as their backstory. Although hiding a terrible secret between them, these young women are resilient and struggle against the harsh conditions.
The Convict Girls four-book series written by Deborah Challinor follows four bonded female convicts Friday Woolfe, Rachel Winter, Sarah Morgan and Harriet Clarke who are shipped from London’s infamous Newgate Prison to the penal colony of Sydney Town, New South Wales, to work off their sentences. The penalties for petty crime, like the strange new land, are unforgiving.
Set in 1832, the travails of Friday, Rachel, Sarah and Harrie jump off the page as each book tells the story from each woman’s perspective while moving the narrative forward. Titles are Behind the Sun, Girl of Shadows, The Silk Thief, A Tattooed Heart. As they work through their bond in different forms of servitude, the reader follows their friendship, the physical and mental strain, and their all-important futures.
Author Deborah Challinor skilfully expands and elaborates on their new lives (the homebody, the thief, the seamstress, the prostitute) while keeping the voice true. She gets the more risqué messages across without unnecessary crudeness. Her well researched, well written plots and strong supporting characters, like cruel Bella Jackson and handsome Dr James Downey, blend together to spin a gripping yarn, spiced with highs, lows, loves, laughs, drama and murder.
I love good historical fiction, this quartet is superb (look beyond the chick-lit cover art) and Deborah Challinor knows how to lure her readers. The outstanding imagery, ripe for screen adaptation, kept me reading long after I should have turned off the light. I strongly recommend this 5-star series and suggest reading the stories in sequence so they unfold in all their splendour.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
AUTHOR BIO: Deborah Challinor is a writer and PhD historian from Waikato in New Zealand. She lived in Australia while researching the stories for her Convict Girls series. The books follow four young woman transported to New South Wales for petty crimes. The character of Friday Woolfe is loosely based on her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Mary Ann Anstey who was caught stealing a silk handkerchief and sent out to Sydney Town on Lady Juliana, a convict ship dispatched in 1789 from England to Australia. Deborah Challinor has written over 16 books, historical fiction and non-fiction titles. Website https://www.read-nz.org/writer/challinor-deborah/
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
Have you received an email, text message, Facebook request or card in the letterbox which made you wince? Me too. And it was today. I guess I should be grateful that the sender did not phone me. I would have spluttered my way through the conversation and tried to weasel out of giving this person any information about myself since I last saw them 24 years ago.
Do I feel annoyed, upset or beguiled by their surprise appearance on Facebook? I’m not sure. First, I wondered what prompted this bolt-from-the-blue contact. Second, I wrote down our backstory to get my head straight:
We worked together before our children were born, she was going into a new marriage and I was leaving an old one. This woman’s role was administration manager or something like that, she did a lot of accounts and moaned about the way forms were filled incorrectly. She had a corner office with a big desk and spent a lot of time talking to staff in an over-friendly, mocking way that unpopular people have when they are trying to be popular.
As a matter of fact, I’m ashamed to admit, I became part of her bridal party. I succumbed to pressure and involuntarily became a bridesmaid. Her friend or her sister was matron-of-honour and I think there may have been another bridesmaid but maybe I replaced someone who wasn’t up to task. Anyhow, I remember the gown fittings, the diamanté jewellery, the shoes, the bouquets, the whole rigmarole was exhausting. On the Big Day I had professional make-up applied (trowelled on) and I thought it looked hideous. My hair was whooshed back and I felt as stiff as a Barbie doll. A close-up photograph of me doesn’t look too bad – gosh, I was young.
Now, dear reader, I was in a relationship with an army sergeant at the time and the wedding photographer was an ex-boyfriend. I don’t remember feeling tense about them being in the same ballroom. Maybe I blotted out that part of the evening. I do remember my ex-boyfriend wilfully snapping a photo of me dancing with my new partner. I’m not a dancer. It was an okay wedding ceremony with theme colours of pink and maroon which were quite tastefully done. As befits the centre of attention, the bride played her part but the groom was a bit quiet, e.g. rather inanimate character. Predictably over the intervening years, the cake, food, groomsmen and speeches left no impression.
Not long after the Big Day, I resigned from the corporation where we both worked and I started another life. I briefly met the woman in question about two years later outside a local video store (remember videos, overnight rental, tape jams?) and she was with her husband and six months pregnant. From what Facebook will let me see, she has a couple of children now. With no family news or information, she perceptively called me ‘Stranger’, asked me if I was still living in the same place and did I want to meet up? Why, and why now? Truth must be told; I was uncomfortable around the woman. She had the knack of grating on me, especially when she initiated ‘jokes’ with co-workers.
A long-time friend, a dear person who lives in the countryside, says he has been contacted by various ‘friends’ he hasn’t seen in years and feels they are freeloading in their desire to drop in on his rural idyll, taking advantage of a convenient escape to the country. I, too, have had similar occurrences in suburbia but I tell people that I do not entertain at home and we don’t have a spare bed. And that is true enough, depending on the visitor. With this mystery reappearance of a workmate (as opposed to friend) who made no contact with me after the wedding, much to my relief, and now wants to buddy up as if 24 years is no time at all – I don’t get it.
Is she divorced? Is she retiring? Is she thinking kind thoughts about me? Or is she bored with her life and Facebooking randoms from her past? Another truthful moment; I don’t think we would have one single thing in common. Possibly she has changed, possibly I’m anti-social, possibly infinite variables.
Am I tempted? Sure, I’m tempted. I could click Accept or Decline on that Messenger button. Click Accept and, hey presto, all will be revealed. Also, it would expose a lot of stuff I don’t want to remember very closely. Then there’s the difficulty of worming my way out of it. I don’t want an added extra to my social life right now. As previously posted, I am cutting back on my social media. I want to move forward…write and relax…my way…I guess I could just say ‘hello’ and not get involved…I guess…
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
N.B. Apologies to friends and followers who would like a Comment box.
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.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
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.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
(With my thanks to Maud Fitch, friend and fellow writer)
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.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
In the middle of my grandpa’s paddock is a hill.
In the middle of the hill is an amazing glowing cave.
In this cave lives a dragon with bright eyes and shiny scales.
This dragon loves daisies almost as much as her dazzling jewels.
I always take a big bunch of daisies for her silver vase.
The dragon sniffs and I try not to laugh as petals stick to her snout.
I visit the dragon on windy days when she likes to test her leathery wings.
I have to duck my head as she flaps around and around the cave.
Swish! Whoosh! The daisies scatter.
I visit the dragon on hot days with an extra treat of frozen oranges.
The dragon chews wildly, scattering me with orange peel confetti.
I visit the dragon on cold days and her fiery breath keeps me warm.
The daisies are scorching, I smell smoke.
“Be careful!” I cry as flames lick my wooden chair.
We cough and cough until I brew soothing cups of rosehip tea.
Next day I huff and puff as I tug a new chair up the hill.
The dragon has fresh daisies and does a happy twirl.
Oops! Her tail spikes through the chair and it won’t come off.
She wiggles, the chair wobbles, I tug too hard and …
Oh! The chair flies through the air towards a farm tractor below.
“Watch out!” I shout and wave my arms.
The dragon covers her eyes with trembling wings.
Crash! A small figure jumps up and down and I know it’s my grandpa.
He must know where I borrowed that chair.
With a rustle of unfolding wings, the dragon stares at me.
“Time for me to go,” I say and pat the dragon’s claw.
Next afternoon, I sit on a solid stone but it scratches my legs.
I see the dragon’s head droop onto a rock pillow.
Even the daisies are wilting. “Why is she so tired?”
I tap my chin thoughtfully. “Dragon needs to snuggle.”
My arms and legs are working fast as I scurry around the cave.
Scooping up gold coins, I make a twinkling trail.
It circles the dragon in the shape of an egg.
Next I gather jewellery and gems and sparking diamonds.
My hands tingle as I pile everything into the oval shape.
I mix the treasure together and make a glittering nest.
The dragon barely blinks as I cover right up to her bony elbows.
She puffs steam, snuffles and falls asleep.
I tiptoe out of the cave and can’t wait for tomorrow.
“Do dragons hatch eggs?” I wonder.
In the middle of my grandpa’s paddock is a hill,
In the middle of the hill is an amazing glowing cave.
In this cave lives two dragons with bright eyes and shiny scales.
The new dragon flaps tiny wings,
The new dragon guzzles frozen oranges,
The new dragon burps little flames.
And the new dragon is called Daisy.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
Julia spun around and saw a tiny green blur scurry across the bookcase.
A scrabble of feet, a tiny sneeze, something squeezed out of sight.
A book of fairytales flew off the shelf and hit the floor with a thud.
“Who’s there?” Julia imagined a spiky grasshopper.
Carefully, so carefully, she put the book back where it belonged.
A tiny hand, a papery scrape, a puff of dust and the book whizzed off the shelf again.
“Ouch!” It hit Julia right on the nose. “That wasn’t very nice.”
Zing, clunk, thump! She heard a chuckle as more books pinged off the shelf.
“Stop that.” Julia rapped on the bookcase. “Don’t you like books?”
“No!” a tiny voice squeaked. “Hobgoblins hate books!”
And out of hiding came a tiny green hobgoblin.
He had a gold buckle on his pointy hat and gold buckles on his pointy shoes.
She replied firmly. “Then please leave my books alone and go away.”
“Was planning to make a pile of books up to your window,” he grumbled.
Julia thought for a moment. “Use a chair.”
“Can’t move a chair all by myself,” he mumbled.
The hobgoblin watched as Julia pushed the chair under the open window.
“Difficult for me to get way over there,” he huffed, arms folded.
Quickly Julia gathered the books and stacked them like a staircase.
It wobbled but the hobgoblin skipped down as light as a feather.
He tapped his foot while she built another staircase up to the seat of the chair.
He scrambled onto the leather seat and stopped. “Can’t grab the window ledge.”
With a voice like her mother’s, Julia said “Try.”
Bounce, bounce! The tiny hobgoblin tried kangaroo hops.
Several books shook, but it didn’t work.
He changed his frowny face into a crooked smile.
He raised his tiny green arms. “Would be most grateful if you’d pick me up.”
Julia felt uncomfortable, she wondered if he might bite.
“Miaow.” Julia’s cat prowled into the room.
With a squeal, the hobgoblin jumped high in the air and flew out the window.
In a flash, the cat raced after him.
Julia ran to the window and saw the cat jump down as the hobgoblin flew up.
The hobgoblin’s tiny, shiny wings caught the breeze and he flew over the fence.
Julia looked down at her wide-eyed cat. “Well, that was a mystery.”
The window stayed open as Julia heaped her books higher and higher and higher.
She placed her favourite book of fairytales on top.
Meanwhile her cat sniffed at a speck of green on the window ledge.
It was a tiny pointy hobgoblin hat.
Julia snatched it up and something fell out.
A teeny tiny book with a gold cover.
She laughed. “He does like books after all!”
Something tiny and green hovered just outside her window.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward