A rather dramatic story is unfolding in my breakfast bowl.
Cereals and desserts have been eaten from this bowl for over thirty years and yet I have never properly looked at the picture on it.
A few days ago I had a shock when I scooped up the last spoonful of my Weet-Bix (similar to the UK Weetabix, both invented by Bennison Osborne, an Australian) and saw there was a castle on the hill. I kid you not, I had never seen that castle before!
Allow me to acquaint you with some backstory. Originally there was a set of six china bowls (15 centimetres or 6 inches across) and originally my parents owned them. Unfortunately porridge, domestic accidents, and heating leftovers in the microwave have whittled them down. Of the surviving two, one has a nasty looking fault line appearing. Therefore, the bowl I have photographed may be the end of the ceramic line. Or the end of the beginning of a coach trip.
So far, so boring—but wait. Although this bowl is old, I have to be honest and say it is not an antique. In fact the picture may have been embossed on like a transfer and glazed over. Never mind, I’m getting to the point, well, ten points actually—
♦ First there is the brooding castle on the hill; quite a substantial pile. A name doesn’t immediately spring to mind but I’m working on it.
♦ Nestled halfway down the hill is a gamekeeper or crofter’s cottage.
♦ In the valley at the base of the hill is a small village. An unaccompanied lady is standing on the side of the unpaved road which runs past the Duck Inn. She isn’t over-dressed and uses a walking cane. Her gaze is towards the two gentlemen opposite, chatting beside the milestone. Perhaps this marker reads “London 100 miles” but I can’t decipher it.
♦ One of the toffs (lord of the manor) is holding a buggy whip. He would not have ridden a horse down from the castle in a top hat. He could be the lady’s son and heir up to no-good, he spends too much time in the tavern. Or she may be his old faithful nanny, instructed to keep an eye on him. Or yet again, she could be the wife of the man canoodling in the middle of the road.
♦ We see two lovers canoodling in the middle of the road. The man is keener than the woman, and a dog is either giving them a wide berth or coming around behind the man to nip him on the ankle.
♦ Unbeknown to the busily occupied people, a cat slinks into the rear footwell of the coach. Earlier he had been shooed away but being a feline named Nosey…
♦ Outside the Duck Inn (a duck is painted on the sign) the coach boy is making final preparations for the horses’ feedbags. He loves them ‘orses.
♦ The coach driver is ready and waiting. He’s heard rumours that Dick Turpin is lurking in the vicinity (if I’m in the right century) and wants to get going well before nightfall. The innkeeper loaned him a pistol and it digs into the small of his back.
♦ Seven people are milling about. At least four are passengers judging by the loading of a trunk on the roof, a well-wrapped parcel in somebody’s hands, and a family group perhaps saying goodbye. The husband could be off to London on business and the daughters are sad but the wife is glad he’s out of her hair for a few days.
♦ Lastly, a curtain twitches at one of the attic windows of the Duck Inn.
There are leafy details in the background and in the foreground the stone wall appears to be crumbling. I have looked for birds but only managed to spy a tiny number 9 in the garden beneath the Duck Inn sign. A maker’s mark?
And that’s it. There are no hallmarks or stamps on base of the bowl except the words “Made in England”. I have no idea if the picture is fake-aged or has been copied from an earlier (original) tableware design.
One thing is for sure, it has given me a good idea for an historical short story. Visual prompts are another way to overcome writer’s slump. Look hard at any image and you will find a story to tell.
Check your kitchen cupboards, your own crockery may have a narrative in the making!
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
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 short story mentions a rural event known as a show.
Alternate names can be exhibition, county fair or agfest.
Looks of disbelief washed across the children’s faces. Robbo’s face shone with a self-satisfied smile. Next to his work boots lay Dugger, his Labrador dog, who raised an eyelid then went back to sleep.
A snort came from school teacher, Miss Evelyn, and all eyes turned to her as she gathered up her patchwork squares.
“What a lot of nonsense,” she said as she stuffed sewing material into her carrybag. “Brookfield Show eve and you’re going to fill their heads with fantasy.”
One of the younger children put his hand up.
“Did it really happened, Robbo?”
Robbo said “Yes” at the same time Evelyn snapped “No” and the young boy retracted his hand in disappointment.
“Can you prove it?” asked Angela, an older girl with jet black hair and thoughtful eyes. She was one of many third generation Brookfield students whom Miss Evelyn had known from babyhood.
“Hmm,” Robbo said thoughtfully. If he had a beard, he would have stroked it in contemplation. “I reckon I can try.”
Robbo was a well-known local figure, a carpenter by trade who could turn his hand to any odd job around the residences in the area. He and Dugger were a volunteer Story Dog team at the local school.
Today they had veered off topic and instead of the slow readers reading, Robbo had tantalised them with an opening salvo to his tale.
“Start from the beginning,” Miss Evelyn sniffed “so we can get into the right mood.”
The children chuckled nervously and settled themselves back on the kindergarten cushions. Some of the older boys had objected to being in the kindy room but the seating arrangements were more comfortable than their classroom, currently overflowing with paintings and craft waiting transfer to the Show pavilions.
Miss Evelyn settled herself down again like a kookaburra shuffling her feathers. A couple of the young ones inched closer to her, hoping for motherly support should the need arise.
“Okay,” Robbo rubbed his hands together. “Here goes!” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. A security thumb or two was popped in, soft toys were hugged and someone let off a smell.
“It wasn’t a dark and stormy night, in fact, it wasn’t dark but there was a rain cloud,” began Robbo, lowering his voice, “and two small brown wallabies grazing in a paddock near the Showgrounds.” His eyes roved the attentive audience. “A large crow was sitting high in a nearby gumtree when––” Robbo clapped his hands and everyone jumped. “A bolt of lightning struck the gumtree and the crow flew away. The lightning had ignited the tree and fire was crackling fiercely through it branches before someone in the general store rang the fire brigade.”
Everyone wriggled then settled again, eyes just that bit wider. “The flames had reached the ground and were burning towards the Brookfield Showgrounds at a furious pace.” Robbo looked around. “Where are those two wallabies?”
A hand shot up and the timid voice of Frederick of the smells said “They ran away to safety.”
Robbo shook his head. “No, they were still there. And you know what?” He raised his calloused hands high in the air above his head. “They had turned into giant wallabies.” Then, for extra emphasis, he stood up and reached for the ceiling. His fingers almost dislodged a butterfly mobile but it added to the atmosphere as they fluttered wildly around his uncombed hair.
“These were energised wallabies, they had super powers and were big enough to roll the Ferris wheel away.”
The group froze; Frederick crouched ready to run.
An older boy scoffed “Yeah, but what can they do about the fire?”
Nodding heads inspired him to add “Maybe the crow flew to get help?”
Robbo pulled a face and told them the crow was another story. Sitting down, he attempted a sage storyteller voice.
“They bounded over a fence to Moggill Creek and began drinking lots and lots of water. It tasted a bit like dirt and leaves and stuff but they guzzled until they were full. It was difficult for them to walk so they sort of rolled back towards the outer fence. It flattened and they put themselves right in the path of the oncoming blaze. With puffed cheeks and one big blast like a wall of creek water, they hosed over the flames until they went out.” He cleared his throat. “Of course, the smoke made them cough and they had to wipe their eyes but all in all they didn’t even get their fur singed.”
“What happened next,” shouted two girls in unison, grabbing each other’s hands. “Did they get a medal? Or a free pass to the Show?”
Miss Evelyn pursed her lips and shushed them.
Robbo’s expression sobered. “Not that simple, I’m afraid.”
Dugger shifted position on the floor and put his bony jaw on his paws, the seams of his orange vest creaking beneath him.
“The two giant wallabies heard a sound,” continued Robbo, “and turned to see that stray sparks had ignited inside the main Showground and were crackling and spitting across the dry leaves, past the arena, towards the agricultural buildings and meeting hall. Oh no, historical buildings.”
Nobody saw Miss Evelyn trying to swallow a laugh and regain her composure.
“Surely the local fire brigade would have arrived by now?” she said.
“Their siren could be heard in the distance,” said Robbo, “and the general store had put up makeshift road blocks to stop traffic. The store owner was hosing down the store and the giant wallabies knew if they were seen by him, their cover would be blown. After one mighty spurt of water, they shrunk and hopped off into the distance, far away, up towards Mount Elphinstone. There is a cave high on Mount Elphinstone where, legend has it, two wallabies sit and keep watch over the dry land.”
Robbo surveyed his listeners. “The paint had been blistered off some buildings, and a palm tree was sooty but it survived and a quick paint job fixed the rest.”
“Phew, that’s a relief,” said one of Angela’s younger siblings and everyone laughed. Apparently they shared similar thoughts – the cake pavilion housing their entries sitting under cling wrap on paper plates. “And sideshow alley,” thought Miss Evelyn.
“However,” Robbo spoke at full volume, causing several children to squeak, “whenever there is lightening in Brookfield, or a barbecue out of control, you are wise to stay away from the flames because the giant wallabies will activate.”
“But,” said Frederick gravely, “they are our friends and they would protect us.”
“True, true.” Robbo was momentarily fazed. Even asleep, Dugger thumped his tail in encouragement. Robbo rallied “Just don’t get in the way of giant wallabies at work. Like flood waters, giant wallabies could unleash a wave of water which would wash you off your feet and into Moggill Creek.”
Miss Evelyn puckered her brow. “Robbo, please. No more scary stories.”
Robbo avoided her gaze, patting Dugger and adjusting his leather collar.
“Show’s over, kids.”
Determinedly, single-minded Angela spoke up. “You said you had proof.”
Judging by the looks Miss Evelyn saw on the younger faces, caps nervously twisted between little fingers, they did not want proof.
“Sure,” replied Robbo with an airy wave of his hand. “If you go into the pony club grounds near the Brookfield Cemetery, you’ll spy a bleached eucalyptus tree trunk. That’s the one which got struck by lightning.”
“Also,” piped a helpful voice from the sidelines, “I’ve seen wallabies.”
The collective chatter was enough to wake Dugger. He got to his paws, shook his furry head and looked around. He let out a sharp bark and ran to the open door. With a slight pause to sniff the air, he bounded out of the room.
The space Dugger left seemed suspended, a motionless void.
“Wallabies,” whispered Frederick.
The electronic school bell sounded, breaking the spell.
“Lunch time, children.” Miss Evelyn rose and smoothed her tartan skirt. “After lunch we have choir rehearsal for the opening ceremony.”
As the children helped stack cushions in the corner, Miss Evelyn turned to Robbo.
“Was Dugger motivated by the aroma of tuckshop pies or something bigger?”
Robbo shrugged. “That dog has a great sense of theatre.”
She wagged her finger. “Giant wallabies or not, the Show must go on.”
AUTHOR NOTE: This short story is dedicated with love and respect to Kookaburra Kat of KR, a long-time friend who supports and encourages my literary endeavours and is a passionate wildlife warrior, nurturing and caring for all creatures. GBW.
The 25th Scarlet Stiletto Awards have been launched – with a body or two in the library – and I have reblogged the exciting news:
Sisters in Crime Australia’s 25th Scarlet Stiletto Awards were launched by Dr Angela Savage at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Library on 27 April, 2018. Almost $10,000 is on offer in prize money.
The event included dramatic readings of three winning “body in the library” stories – “Jane” by Narrelle M Harris (read by Jane Clifton), “Caught on Camera” by Jenny Spence (read by Susanna Lobez) and “Brought to Book” by Kath Harper (read by Leigh Redhead).
Dr Savage (below), the 2011 shoe winner and now Director of Writers’ Victoria, declared the awards “a milestone for Australian crime – at least of the literary persuasion”.
The awards, she said, had “spring-boarded the careers of many writers, including myself. To date, 3084 stories have been entered with 23 Scarlet Stiletto Award winners –including category winners – going on to have novels published.
“Like many of Sisters in Crime’s best ideas, it sprang from a well-lubricated meeting in St Kilda when the convenors debated how they could unearth the female criminal talent they were convinced was lurking everywhere.
“Once a competition was settled on, it didn’t take long to settle on a name – the scarlet stiletto, a feminist play on the traditions of the genre. The stiletto is both a weapon and a shoe worn by women. And of course, the colour scarlet has a special association for us as women. And they were right – talent is lurking everywhere, sometimes in the most unlikely places!”
The success and longevity of the Awards have been hugely dependent on the generosity of Australian publishers, booksellers, the film and television industry, authors and other parties.
Sisters in Crime had been uncertain that the launch would go ahead because, at the eleventh hour, the First Prize Sponsor, Bonnier/Echo Publishing, was closed down by its overseas arm. Luckily, Swinburne University and the ever-resourceful Dr Carolyn Beasley, Acting Chair of the Department of Media and Communication, stepped into the breach.
Sisters in Crime spokesperson, Carmel Shute, said, “We were also lacking a Young Writer Award sponsor because Allen & Unwin pulled out last year after more than 20 years of sponsorship. We were chuffed to get support at the last minute from Fleurieu Consult run by South Australian member Jessie Byrne, who is researching her creative PhD exegesis on Sisters in Crime Davitt Awards for best books.”
There are two brand-new awards on offer this year: Writers Victoria Crime and Punishment Award ($660) for the story with the most satisfying retribution (the winner gets a three-month spell in prison in the guise of a studio residency at Old Melbourne Gaol) and the International Association of Forensic Linguistics (IALF) Award for Best Forensic Linguistics Story ($1000).
IALF President, Dr Georgina Heydon (left) from RMIT, told the crowd that the award was designed to foster understanding of forensic linguistics which uses a scientific approach to language analysis in legal and criminal investigations.
“Typically, a forensic linguist is engaged to analyse the authorship of an anonymous document, to determine what was said and by whom in a covert recording, to identify coercive or oppressive questioning by police, or to determine the need for an interpreter. It’s not to be confused with the analysis of hand-writing styles.”
The full list of awards is:
The Swinburne University Award: 1st Prize: $1500
The Simon & Schuster Award: 2nd prize: $1000
The Sun Bookshop Award: 3rd Prize: $500
The Fleurieu Consult Award for Best Young Writer (18 and under): $500
The Athenaeum Library ‘Body in the Library’ Award: $1000 ($500 runner-up)
International Association of Forensic Linguists Award: $1000 for Best Forensic Linguistics Story
The Every Cloud Award for Best Mystery with History Story: $750
Kerry Greenwood Award for Best Malice Domestic Story: $750
Writers Victoria Crime and Punishment Award: $660 (studio residency, Old Melbourne Gaol) for the Story with the Most Satisfying Retribution
HarperCollins Publishers Award for Best Romantic Suspense Story: $500
Scarlet Stiletto Award for Best Financial Crime Story: $500
Clan Destine Press Award for Best Cross-genre Story: $500
Liz Navratil Award for Best Story with a Disabled Protagonist Award: $400
Closing date for the awards is 31 August 2018. Entry fee is $20 (Sisters in Crime members) or $25 (others). Maximum length is 5000 words. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Melbourne in late November.
To download an entry form, pay the entry fee and read the FAQs, click here.
Media comment: Carmel Shute, Secretary and National Co-convenor, Sisters in Crime Australia:
0412 569 356 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the Sisters in Crime website and sign up for their newsletter.
It would be criminal to miss out on this great opportunity!
Recapping on myFreytag’s Pyramid Challenge Part One to write a punchy 500 words (or less) short story using exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement, with a dog and cat as the two main characters.
I did the Freytag’s Pyramid Challenge myself – because I had just at that particular moment made up the whole idea! Apologies if some smarter person has already done this. The following short story is my effort featuring an evening in the life of an unruly family.
You can participate in Freytag’s Pyramid Challenge in your own time by posting on your own blog. Add your wordcount and use the name ‘Freytag’ in your catchy title. I would love to see your work, your words or illustrations. NO prizes, no follow-up, just the satisfaction of completing an exercise.
Let’s see what drama your dog, cat and the Pyramid created – here’s mine!
“Hey Freytag, Look What I Wrote”
The house and garden were big enough for Claudia and Doug to avoid seeing each other during daylight hours. Evening meal times were another matter. When Mr Owner came home at nightfall with Mrs Owner and all the young Owners, tempers flared and teeth were bared.
‘Such an uncivilised family’ Claudia thought. She was civilised enough not to hiss and spit, even when someone trod on her tail.
‘Nice manners, nice manners,’ she purred, rubbing against various legs. Her eyes searched for unattended food and her nose twitched at the delicious aromas from cooking pots.
Creating his own maelstrom, Doug ran in excited circles around the farmhouse-style kitchen. He drooled on the tiles and whined hopefully at the oblivious family. Usually Baby Owner was good for a glob or two of mashed potato.
Meanwhile, Claudia prepared to take advantage of pre-meal morsels already on the pine table.
While human mayhem raged about the room, the benefits of salad fiercely debated, she crunched her dry fish-shaped pellets and prepared her muscles for some feline action. With legs bunched, and nice manners forgotten, Claudia was ready to spring. A quick leap onto the chair, then up and over onto the table.
Thump! She landed in a dish of cooked pasta.
Whoa! The dish slid across the table with Claudia clinging on top.
It was speeding towards the edge. Too shocked to miaow, she imagined herself crashing to the floor and thought “What a waaaste.”
The edge arrived and disappeared and she was flying off the table.
Below her, Doug leapt up and clamped his huge jaws on the rim of the dish.
Of course, the dish stopped dead, but Claudia and the pasta continued to fly across the kitchen, headed straight towards the big white bulk of the refrigerator.
Someone caught Claudia in mid-flight. She was saved!
“Eew,” said First Teenage Owner as pasta squelched between her fingers. Second Teenage Owner laughed. Claudia felt cheese squash against her long, luxuriant fur and shuddered.
Doug dropped the dish and began slurping up bits of mangled pasta. “Not wasted after all,” she thought with an angry flick of her tail.
Mr Owner praised Doug for his good catch; First Teenage Owner was praised for her quick thinking; and Claudia? Well, Claudia was chewing on a juicy piece of steak she had snaffled from Doug’s bowl when his back was turned.
Supervision was tightened, orders were given; no fighting, no talking with mouths full, pets dine separately.
Stiff-legged with indignity and cheese, Claudia felt she had received the harshest penalty – being cleaned up by dog-breath Doug and his rough pink tongue. Slurp!
Everyone sat down to a fine dinner and calmness descended on the kitchen. Pasta was now Claudia’s least favourite meal but Doug grinned with satisfaction.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward 2018
Conceivably Gustav Freytag, novelist and playwright of the 19th century, would shake his head in wonder if he watched a 21st century movie. His Pyramid 5-part plot structure still rings true today.
The Pyramid of Gustav Freytag (1816–1895) is seen in various formats now but the basics of drama stay the same. He based his Pyramid on Greek tragedy and Shakespearean drama and it has been copied by scholars and followed by writers ever since.
Read a book, watch a film, or listen to someone telling a story. Notice the pattern: an introduction, the build up, intensity peaks, a gradual resolution and the final scene. My writing teacher demonstrated with a coathanger. It had baubles and beads hung on it but underneath the basic structure remained firm.
I bet Herr Freytag would have a good laugh over the continued consistencies of human nature. He wrote the novel ‘The Journalists’ (1854) which is still regarded as one of the most successful German comedies of that period.
Okay, kiddies, dust off your keyboard. Your Freytag’s Pyramid Challenge is to write a punchy 500 words (or less) short story using exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement, with a dog and cat as your two main characters.
Harder than you think? Tip: Denouement is not the same as an epilogue.
I am going to do Freytag’s Pyramid Challenge myself – because I have just this minute made up the idea! Apologies if some smarter person has already done this. I will post my speculative effort under my blog heading Freytag’s Pyramid Challenge Part Twoand my sub-heading ‘Hey Freytag, Look What I Wrote’.
I would love to see your work, your words or illustrations! NO prizes, no follow-up, just the satisfaction of completing an exercise. You can participate in Freytag’s Pyramid Challenge in your own time by posting on your own blog. Add your wordcount and use the name ‘Freytag’ in your catchy title.
Let’s see what drama your dog, cat and the Pyramid create!
As I left the local gym, a rat scampered towards me waving a crumpled envelope.
“You’re Bertha East, right?” he squeaked. I started to explain I was Bertha West but he let the envelope flutter to the footpath and raced off. I scooped it up and saw on the back that it was from Duck No. 4938, a nodding acquaintance at the gym. The letter had been scribbled with a quill and Duck No. 4938 explained that she was currently behind bars at Critters Incarcerated. According to her letter, she was blameless of the charges levelled against her, while remaining tight-billed about her true intentions.
I was puzzled until next day the story became public knowledge. This had prompted her lawyer Henny McCluck to state that her client Duck No. 4938 was nowhere near The Duck Pond on the afternoon in question.
Apprehended with a plastic bag of crumbs under her wing, proceedings are currently underway to determine if Duck No. 4938 gobbled all the dry bread crusts before other ducks had a chance to exit the water. The Duck Pond is a popular picnic spot, a prominent sign warns Do Not Feed The Birds, and investigators are urging the child who dropped the bread crusts to come forward.
“My client pleads not guilty and hopes for early release,” said McCluck. She added that the Duckolympic champion held the coveted title of Paddling Fury and should be respected for her sporting prowess. I realised that this would not help her cause. In a photograph released today, Duck No. 4938 appeared rather haunted, her feathers askew. Lawyer McCluck can be seen loitering in the background.
Meanwhile, the letter I received from Duck No. 4938 hinted that she believes lawyer McCluck is pecking through what little grain savings she has left and asks for my support. I decided against sending a 2kg bag of cracked corn to the address she nominated and considered the letter to be some sort of scam.
The arrest had caused a flurry in the catering industry and representatives were standing in readiness to take stomach content samples.
By now social media tweets were going viral, ruffling large flocks of the feathered fraternity with #stuffedduck #duckdiving and #whatsitallaboutduckie. Television news coverage focused on the issue of slim pickings for underprivileged water birds. Dramatic press headlines read “Feathered Fraudster” and “Dead in the Water” with an inflammatory byline from an angry drake.
“She snatched it right out from under my webbed feet!”
A shiver ran up my spine. The drake has engaged the services of Paulo Dingo, known in legal circles as ‘Hungry’.
Undisclosed sources close to The Duck Pond were striving to gain access to security camera videos which could prove Duck No. 4938 was not in the vicinity of the water’s edge at the time of the incident.
“Video footage won’t prove a thing,” said ‘Hungry’ Dingo in his scathing report on the inadequacy of the wildlife penal system. “Judge Cassowary wouldn’t know one duck from another,” he howled.
My after-lunch doze was unsettled by thoughts that blackmail and swamp weed may be at the root of the allegations. At the very least Duck No. 4938 may have been duped and become ensnared in a network of fowl crime. But why come to me? Why doesn’t she tell the truth?
The phone rang and I discovered that local Constable Steve Brolga was conducting enquiries. He said he would be undertaking a nest-to-nest search and interviewing anyone who may have seen or heard Duck No. 4938 acting suspiciously in the surrounding area.
“Keep your ears tuned for me, Bertha,” he said.
My ears twitched and I pondered the fact that Duck No. 4938 may have a secret hiding place. Unexpectedly I had the answer. A clutch of ducklings, safely hidden from the likes of ‘Hungry’ Dingo.
A guilty verdict would certainly hinder her parental responsibilities. She had to plan, she needed someone on the outside, someone who lived nearby and could go to the address in the letter. Someone she could trust to protect her family.
I confided my swirling thoughts to young Joey.
“I guess I can help,” I mused, “What’s 2kg of cracked corn anyway?”
He was dubious and thought it may have been a trap. “Or we might be followed.”
But the more we talked, the more I thought about food relief. “Maybe we could scrounge some stale bread rolls from the back of the supermarket?”
This proved to be a difficult task and I scrambled over enough plastic bags and wasted food to last me a lifetime. A couple of crows helped by flicking slices of bread out of a half-opened skip but maintained their image by cawing loudly every time one hit me on the head. Joey laughed until a mouldy slice hit him.
Next day I alerted Constable Brolga and planned to meet him at the location specified by Duck No. 4938. Joey and I set off mid-morning and arrived earlier than intended. I stopped at a rusty wire gate to confirm the address.
“This is it.” The only noise was the rustling of eucalyptus leaves.
Before I could stop him, Joey bounced out with the bulky package and pushed through the gate.
“Let’s blow this case wide open!”
I sighed and shoved the letter back in my pouch.
We hopped up a set of shallow steps to the wooden door of an old shed. Heat radiated from the corrugated iron cladding and we strained to hear any sound of ducklings from within. Flies buzzed around us, the smell was overpowering and Joey wrinkled his nose. I knocked forcefully, rattling the door.
There was scuffling and very slowly and carefully the door slid open. Suddenly we were engulfed in a tide of fluffy yellow pinfeathers and eagerly quacking bills. Joey moved forward as bright little eyes scanned our food parcel.
He held up his paw. “Who wants to be first in line?”
I felt comfortable with our decision. Whatever truths the trial may reveal, the innocent must not suffer.
The yellow rabbit picked his front teeth with a twig and contemplated what it would be like baked in a rabbit pie. He remembered a tune the tone-deaf gardener used to sing “Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run, something, something, he’ll get by without his rabbit pie…” Stupid song but with a happy ending for the bunny. The yellow rabbit didn’t have to worry about ending up in a pie because he crept among the marrows and hid in the sunflower patch or in buttery dandelion clumps and the gardener couldn’t see him. There were so many things to hide in, or on, or against when you were yellow. He remembered the nerve-wracking time he stopped on a double yellow line so a council truck wouldn’t run over him. The driver wasn’t going fast but that’s beside the point. The yellow rabbit nearly hopped out in front of the vehicle. Of course, stopping still on the yellow line made him invisible. His paws were a bit shaky once the truck had driven passed and he’d vowed then and there never to cross a road again. He looked up at the back verandah of the old homestead and continued his contemplation. There was a big yellow tablecloth fluttering on the railing which meant plans were afoot to eat outside. He had already spied the plump yellow cushions on the cane chairs. The big glass jug was frosting over, filled with ice and lemon nectar. The yellow rabbit always thought it strange how the humans ate with tools. They doled out piles of food and delicious salads with forks and scoops and ladles. Then they sliced succulent pineapples with large knives and chopped it into chunks. The strangest thing he’d ever seen was when they would cut the sides off mangoes and grid the luscious inner flesh before turning the skin inside out. At least the young human consumed large portions of her meals with her fingers. This meant that the female of the warren would continually wipe the fingers and face of the little fluffle. The yellow rabbit was now watching for this small fluffle, a young girl who always wore a yellow and white striped dress. She strolled outside holding a glass bowl, spooning egg custard into her mouth without watching the spillage. Her bright eyes were scanning for him. It didn’t take long for her to see him crouched down in a tray full of marigold seedlings. He twitched his long ears. She brushed a curl out of her eyes. He wiggled his nose. She gave a wiggle of her fingers then turned away, disappearing back inside. Out came the male and hung a wire cage on a fancy hook. The canary inside the cage started singing. The male started to set the table with yellow spotted plates and serviettes with sunbeams on them but seemed more interested in taking long swigs from a bottle of amber liquid he had left on the open window sill. The little girl reappeared and behind her trailed several yellow balloons on long shiny strings. She was wearing a cardboard hat decorated with sprigs of wattle which tangled in her blonde hair. The female emerged from the kitchen door with a bunch of daffodils in one hand and an empty honey jar in the other. She put the flowers in the jar and placed it in the middle of the table while talking to the male. The yellow rabbit shuddered and averted his eyes from the hot metal plate where the male had just thrown raw meat. Even the smell of fresh lettuce couldn’t stop him feeling slightly nauseated. After a few minutes, the little girl looped the balloon strings around the handrail and skipped down the verandah steps. She was coming straight towards him. Instinctively he shrunk low into the cool earth and tensed his muscles. She was swinging her arms casually and appeared to be looking over his head at a light catcher made from shimmering pieces of tinfoil clipped to a branch. The yellow rabbit blinked in surprise. She walked right by. However, quick as a wink, she flipped something out of her pocket and into the seedling tray. It was a carrot! Joy swelled in the yellow rabbit’s heart. He snatched up the fresh carrot in his big front teeth and leapt out of the seedling tray. He landed on the grass and bounded for the back fence. He knew it was ungracious of him, but he didn’t turn around to acknowledge the young girl. Biting hard on the carrot, and with a bit of pulling and tugging, he managed to crawl under the fence without getting stuck. He hopped off across the paddock with his tasty prize. The young girl trailed slowly back to her parents. They had soft smiles on their faces. With a happy nod, the young girl sat down at the table where a chunk of pineapple was waiting. As the sticky juice ran down her hands, she listened to her parents tell the familiar story of how they had been shown the nearby rabbit colony when they were her age. The yellow rabbits were a family tradition but nobody knew why they were yellow. Strangely, most of the bits and pieces in the homestead were the same colour, a shade her grandmother called sunshine. Legend says the yellow rabbit always appears on bright sunny days.
The above story was written as a free-write, a freefall stream of consciousness, and I had no idea where it was going or how it would end. It’s a fun technique! To find out more, click Jen Storer Girl and Duck Scribbles
(Rewriting metaphor) The paddocks of writing are strewn with rough drafts. You kick, trip, fall, get up and struggle your way across rugged terrain until you see a smooth pebble ahead. The closer you get, the more polished it becomes. Eventually you walk over golden sand and reach out; that pebble has become a jewel. The following children’s picture book story is still a pebble.
(Living room) Everyone in Neil’s family wants to sit on the soft cosy comfy couch.
Because the soft cosy comfy couch is the best place to sit.
But sometimes it’s just not big enough.
(Takeover) Sometimes Neil can’t sit down to read his book because his two brothers and Tiny the dog sit down first. And they spread out.
(Solid cushion) So Neil tries to sit on a hard red cushion but slides off – bump!
Just when Neil goes to sit down on the front doorstep with his book, it is time for lunch.
The cushion on the kitchen chair is very thin. Neil wriggles to get comfortable.
The thin cushion slips down and lands in the cat’s food.
(Various seats) Neil’s mother watches a movie with Tiny the dog and Rat the cat snoozing on either side.
No room to squeeze in there.
So Neil drags in
a cardboard box – squash! a wooden stool – crack! a blue highchair – topple! Everyone ends up grumpy so Neil goes outside to find a relaxing place to read.
(Outdoors) In the garden the washing flaps across the wooden seat like a ghost – wooooo! When the hammock swings back and forth too much it makes Neil feel dizzy.
He falls out – plop!
(Tree) His leafy perch on a branch in the tree is swooped by noisy magpies – ouch!
Neil tucks his book inside his t-shirt and scrambles down.
(Various places) The chicken roost, the guinea pig hutch and the vegetable patch are no good.
(Swimming pool) Neil likes the idea of floating and reading.
It’s difficult to balance and read a book on the floating pool mat – splash! Tiny the dog jumps into the swimming pool and rescues the book.
(Rainy day) Next day a headcold makes Neil sneeze and sneeze and sneeze.
But he has a new book to read.
And he snuggles up, warm and happy on the soft cosy comfy couch.
(Family) Then everyone decides to keep him company.
On the SQUASHY soft cosy comfy couch.
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 mementoes 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 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.
The funeral was delayed for totally lame reasons. Mary loved her garden and her rusty Holden was being packed full of bright flowers in pots, and uprooted plants in plastic bags, to be rolled away down the road to some market. They missed her shiny trowel tucked behind the water pipe. It also gave the family time to scrub the house, from top to bottom as my mother said, and to plan an auction with the real estate agents. The agents needed to estimate the value of the old weatherboard house without soiling their sleeves if they brushed against something older and wiser than they were. They parked their expensive cars on Mary’s neat green lawn. I figured my knuckles were going to stay white. Stupid really because I didn’t always like Mary. There was this time once when I snuck off school and came home with hot chips. I was just about ready to slop on the tomato sauce when Mary knocked on the door. She gave me a lecture and said she’d tell my mother – and she bloody did.
It turned out we couldn’t go to Mary’s funeral, I had an exam and my mother had work, but it was a shame because I wanted to see how many people knew Mary and how many of her ancient friends were still alive. And I’d never been to a funeral. I wanted to see a genuine coffin so I could picture Mary safe just like she was in her bed on the day I found her.
That armchair we got, you couldn’t call it an easy chair, had polished wooden arms and legs, and the legs must have been sawn off because being an old lady Mary had shrunk and was small. The leg ends had black rubber stoppers pushed on, I guess to stop the chair skating across the floor when she sat down. The seat and back cushions both had blocks of foam inside which had flattened to mush over years of sitting and reading those big newspapers. The back and the seat had solid springs in their frames, covered with sort of tapestry material and I figured my mother thought she could buy new cushions and even if we didn’t like the chair, it would make a good seat for our indoor cat. Well, the cat wouldn’t go near it and I reckon it smelled rank so it was put in our garage.
Eventually the chair was joined by the laminated table, which was as solid as a rock, but had no purpose except to stack our own junk onto it. The drawing of the English village had been on Mary’s wall since before I was born and I think she must have visited the place or maybe she was from there, I don’t know, but this drawing gives me daydreams and I like it even though there are no people in it. After my mother hammered in a nail, I made sure the frame hung straight. My mother said everything of Mary has gone now so we’ll never know her story behind it.
Yeah, everything had been wiped clean and that fine little house was sold at auction. I was at school and missed it. The flurry of bidding was great fun, my mother said, because a developer was overlooked and a nice family has bought it. The girls were nice and Mary would have approved the fact that they went to university. One bad thing happened, they didn’t like trees. Mary loved her memorial tree, she called it that, her husband planted it ages ago, or about fifty years anyway. It took three days but the team of tree loppers finally brought down that big old tree in the front garden. Neighbours were dead against removal, we nearly got a protest group going, but in the end I was glad I had to go to school and couldn’t hear the whining of the chainsaws and the scream of the tree as it twisted and split and branches fell.
Further along, my mother said we have to clean out this garage, and she did the power stance with hands on hips. The council clean-up day was coming fast and I already had my buckled bike and fractured boombox on the footpath beside the old budgie cage. We reckoned they wouldn’t last long, just like the time we put the useless dishwasher out and it vanished in about ten minutes even though the electrical cord and plug had already been snipped.
We both looked at Mary’s little chair. We both looked at each other. Hmm, said my mother, is it of any value? I shrugged, it looks genuinely fake if you know what I mean, she probably paid heaps for it years ago when it had longer legs. If it ever had longer legs. We can put it out for collection, said my mother. We can, but what if one of the family sees it, what if the neighbours recognise what we’re doing? I said. Yes, a bit disrespectful, said my mother, and didn’t say almost on a par with Mary’s family. We hatched a plan and decided to leave Mary’s small chair out for collection. Just, not outside our house. It will be snapped up in a flash, said my mother. I doubt it, I said, it was only special to Mary. I could see her sitting in it, rustling those newspapers.
Next night we put on dark clothes and joked about black face paint and woollen beanies. I wore gloves. With a big effort, the chair being more bulky than it looked so it wouldn’t fit in the boot, I pushed and shoved it into the back seat of my mother’s car. Anyhow we didn’t want to look like we were actually nicking stuff by putting it in the boot. With real cunning we’d chosen a house in a neighbouring suburb with a high block wall and steep driveway. The idea was that they couldn’t see us leave our little surprise on their nature strip.
At about ten o’clock on a moonless night, we drove towards the end of this road with pretty bad street lighting and my mother decided to turn off the headlights. Except for my churning guts, we cruised quietly to the house and braked. My mother waited while I struggled to get the chair out of the car. It wasn’t too heavy and I lifted it out and put it down on the damp grass beside a pile of shadowy bits and pieces. I patted Mary’s chair goodbye. I saw a man walking down the darkened driveway. I jumped back into the car and said go, go, go, how they do in the movies. It would have been good if the tyres had squealed. I knew if an oldie lived in that house, the chair had a chance at survival.
We rocked on home and told each other stories about the next life of that stumpy chair. What if we were spotted and someone brings it back to us? I said. Or we’re reported to the police, said my mother. Days later when I came home tired and dirty from Friday sport, my mother waved the local newspaper at me. Oh geez, I thought. On the front page there was this photograph of a man with Mary’s chair and he said it was the biggest find of his life. Apparently Mary’s family are contesting ownership. Oh well, we didn’t want it, said my mother. Even the cat didn’t want it, I said.
“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.”
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. Plink, plunk!
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.
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.