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Out in the Storm January 20, 2010

Posted by Anna in Uncategorized.
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This week’s writing prompt was a little more complicated than most, and I have to say that although I wrote down some ideas, I really had nothing that I particularly wanted to just ‘go’ with:

List 3-5 words for each of the headings: Situation, Emotions, Objects, then choose one from each and go with that.

I have to say that when this prompt came through, I had no idea what to write, so I put it to my friends on Facebook. I had some great responses, as follows (thank you all!):

Lisa: School playground; anxious; lunch box

Jo: Death of a loved one; rejection; a bookshelf

Heidi D: Small office with no window; apathy; red leather bound diary

Peter W: Starved gaming addiction; frustration; a not so pwning motherboard [I had to ask what ‘pwning’ is, and Matthew replied: Pwning = p(o)wning (said like owning except with a p) loosely means to absolutely decimate everything else that tries to compare … to which Pete agreed. I’m not sure I was any the wiser, but I’ll trust those that know.]

Anya: Menopause; inner peace / tranquillity; a lighthouse.

Debbie: Someone you didn’t want to talk to ever again finds you on Facebook; wanting to vomit at the thought of said person, and the guilt associated with that emotion; the towel into which you are now screaming.

Matthew K: Can’t find inspiration for this week’s writing exercise; frustration; Facebook.

Lily: Loyal work colleagues who stab committed workers in the back; not happy!

My own were: Out in the storm / alone at the beach / driving a car; anger / fear / certainty; glue / highlighters / magazines / rocks.

I’d written my selection at the beginning of the week, but just wasn’t inspired by any of it. As the suggestions from my Facebook friends began to roll in though, a definite idea emerged. Once again, I found myself toying with the notion of using absolutely everything that’s been suggested. I marked the bits from the above list as I used them, then keep referring back to them, just to see how I was going. The outcome was no 20 minute short exercise, but I’ve certainly had fun piecing all the threads together into something that I hope makes at least a passable story.


Shannon hurried out of the meeting and back through to her small, windowless office. Her desk was strewn with case files, and she had a list a mile long of things that needed to be sorted out. The meeting had been as ineffectual as everything else was about the taxpayer-funded social-aid organisation she was trying to work for. All the bosses seemed entirely apathetic – disinterested in genuinely helping any of the people on their files, and really only interested in their next golf game or making sure the paperwork was so complicated its only real function was covering their expansive backsides. She just hated all the politics of getting anything done around the place!

Like a number of her peers, Shannon really wanted to help her clientele, and she closed the door of her cheerless office in order to weep briefly in her frustration. After a few minutes though, the telephone rang, and she hastily dried her eyes, blew her nose and cleared her throat before answering it.

“This is Shannon Morgan,” she said as clearly as she could manage. “Yes? Oh my goodness! No, I haven’t heard a thing, I’m sorry. Yes, alright, I’ll see what I can do. Thank you. Goodbye.”

For several minutes she stared at the full pages of her diary and wondered how on earth to manage it all. She aimlessly straightened a few files. “Oh Adrian,” she sighed. “Why on earth can’t you just get on with your life?”

She drew breath, closed her eyes for a moment, then picked up the phone again and made some arrangements. Then she ran out of the office, flinging her red leather bound diary at the receptionist as she flew past, before clattering down the stairs in her high heels, pulling her coat on as she ran, with her handbag swinging wildly behind her.

~~~~~

“He’s just sitting in the corner of the playground,” the headmistress told Shannon. “He’s been there since just after the first bell this morning, and he just won’t talk to anyone.

Together they walked down the steps from the front office, around the corner of the administration building and across the quadrangle to where Adrian was sitting on a slatted bench. He was clutching an ancient tin lunchbox by the coat hanger wire that served as a handle on its battered top. As she and the headmistress approached, Shannon saw that her brother’s fingers were anxiously rubbing at the twisted wire and he was rocking very slightly back and forth.

“I think you’d better call the ambulance,” Shannon said quietly, just out of his earshot. She moved close and took a seat beside him, while her companion peeled off and returned to the office.

“What’s going on, matey?” she asked gently, putting her near arm across his broad shoulders.

He still hadn’t answered her by the time the ambulance arrived and the paramedics had guided him into the back.

“So Adrian came to school,” Shannon said to the headmistress as they wanted the ambulance drive away. “Did Ben?”

The headmistress turned to blink at her. “I assume so …” Her voice lilted upwards as her words took shape, panic rising as she realised that she didn’t know.

~~~~~

Shannon drove her car out of town, and turned into the rutted, rocky laneway that lead up to Adrian’s house. She knew with certainty that Ben wouldn’t be at home. He never was when things like this happened. He always turned up, but he never hung around when Adrian flipped out.

The house was a mess. Predictably so, Shannon mused as she picked her way across the lounge room towards the kitchen. Computer magazines, dvd cases, software packaging, plates of half-eaten toast and mouldy baked beans – it was all just disgusting. If Adrian wasn’t careful, he’d lose Ben too, and that would probably tip him completely over the edge, Shannon considered. The last thing she wanted to do was have Child Services contacted by anybody.

On the top of the mess strewn over the sticky dining table, there was a clean sheet of white A4 paper, probably taken from the printer. On it, written in black chisel-point marker was “PLEESE”. Shannon had no idea what that meant.

~~~~~

Picking her way down the scrubby bush track towards the beach, Shannon glanced at the sky. What had been a lovely day was fast becoming dark and intense. The predicted storms were clearly on their way. She was glad of the running shoes she’d found in the boot of her car, but seriously wished she’d also had a pair of track pants and a tee shirt as well – this running-shoes-and-business-suit combination wasn’t working so well in the bush.

“Ben!” she called as she emerged onto the beach, scrambling beyond the last of the ti tree and onto the sand. “Ben!”

The wind picked up and somehow even the waves crashing onto the shore began to sound angry and resentful as she trudged along on the hard sand towards the figure she could see, hunched up on the rocks at the far end of the beach. Just by the size and shape, Shannon knew that it was Ben, but it took her quite a while, straining into the wind like she was, to get anywhere close to being in earshot of him.

Hey matey!” she yelled at the top of her voice when she was standing right in front of him. “Come on home!”

Ben didn’t vocalise a response, but he did clamber down and slide his hand into hers, giving it a squeeze as they took off with the wind chasing them back down the beach towards the old house on the headland. They were only halfway along the sand when the rain hit, pelting at them and pummelling their backs, forcing them into an unwilling run, all the way back up to the house.

In other circumstances, they’d have been laughing their heads off when they burst into the house via the laundry door, drenched by the rain. Today, though, they were both very serious.

“Gosh, I love the rain!” Shannon gasped with relief, catching her breath. “But I can’t pretend to love getting caught on the beach in a storm! Those waves were quite frightening, don’t you think?”

Ben didn’t look at her. He just shrugged and hauled off his wet school shirt and shorts, so that he was left in only his little white Bonds undies that were now way too small for him. Shannon made a mental note to buy new ones for him.

The expression on Ben’s face wasn’t unlike the infuriated weather outside, so she didn’t try to make conversation. She did give the small boy a big hug, though. It took a while, but finally he relaxed into her.

In time, Shannon chased Ben into the shower, but only metaphorically. She dousing her own head with warm water in the laundry sink before she heard the shower start running, then went through to Adrian’s room to see if she could find anything of his that might fit her. Should she suggest to Ben that it wasn’t wise for him to be down on the beach alone, especially in a storm? She didn’t have children of her own, so she just didn’t know what Ben needed from her. It was all very tricky, really.

From Adrian’s and Ben’s bedrooms, she gathered up a load of washing, and got that going after she was changed. Then she headed through to the kitchen to get the kettle going.

It really was tragic, this situation.

Adrian was her older brother by a lot of years. She wasn’t yet thirty, but he was already well into his forties. She’d always looked up to him – idolised him, really. He’d used to swing her around over his head when she was little, making her laugh hysterically with his silly faces and voices and jokes. He’d been just the best big brother in the world. She was only about eight when he headed over to England via Thailand, backpacking his way to an adventure, he told her and their parents. She could still remember the excitement in the house when he called from overseas, or a postcard arrived from him.

He travelled for over a decade, just working as a barman or on road crews, or turning his hand to whatever was going whenever he needed money. He flew home sometimes, with a bit of parental help with the airfares, Shannon suspected.

When she was turning 21, Adrian came home for the party, and made everyone incredibly happy by saying that he was staying. It was time to settle down and get a real job and figure out how to live a responsible life. Shannon, of course, had been just as excited as their parents, but something had always stuck in the back of her mind – just the thought that in all of Adrian’s travels, he’d just seen too much. Probably done too much, too. He never said though, and she never asked.

Now, she wondered if perhaps he had indulged in substances while he travelled, damaging his brain somehow, so that it was no longer able to cope readily well in such circumstances. These were just awful circumstances, there was no way around it.

~~~~~

Nellie had been in Adrian’s class at school, and Shannon had the idea that she had something to do with Adrian going away in the first place, and then staying away for so long. He’d only come back to stay when she and her partner left the area.

Nellie and her partner hadn’t stayed together, though – Nell came back, and there Adrian was. He was working on a road gang, paying off his rambling old house on the point, and surfing in his free time. After a month, Nell moved in and they seemed good together. Ben was born within a year, and in Shannon’s opinion, Adrian was the happiest he’d ever been.

With time, surfing the net took over from surfing the waves, but Nell was as into gaming as Adrian, and Ben seemed to fit in with whatever they were doing quite affably.

Shannon did a quick tidy up of the kitchen while she reminisced, but as she set two mugs out and spooned in the drinking chocolate, she couldn’t help smiling to herself. Ben, of course, was always well up on the computer terms, and one time when she’d popped in for a visit, the whole network throughout the house was down, and Adrian was like a bear with a sore head and four sore paws in his frustration. “What’s up with your Dad?” Shannon had asked Ben. Ben must have been all of seven at the time. He rolled his eyes, held up his hands in surrender and said, in all seriousness, “Starved gaming addiction. Frustration … and a not-so-powning motherboard.” Of course Shannon had no idea what ‘powning’ meant, and even after she’d had it explained a dozen or more times, she was still confused. Her reminiscent smile, though, was at Ben’s obvious clear understanding of a concept that had confused her so utterly. “It’s not spelled with an ‘o’, it’s just sounded with it!” he’d insisted. Even now, she could only assume that Adrian, in addition to the network frustrations, had been having issues with an uncooperative mother board in his computer.

~~~~~

Ben came out of the bathroom and slid onto a stool at the breakfast bar. Half the laminate had peeled off the bench, and even as Shannon slid his hot chocolate across to him, he picked at the edges, making it just a little worse again.

“The storm’s still big,” Shannon ventured.

“Yeah.” Ben didn’t sound talkative.

Shannon knew there was no point asking him outright what had happened. He might not know. Catching sight of the note over on the chaotic dining room table, she asked instead, “So … what does ‘pleese’ mean?” She was careful to enunciate a soft, sibilant ‘sss’ sound at the end of the word.

Ben looked at her like she was stupid. “Pleese. Cops.”

“Oh, I wasn’t sure if you were saying ‘please’ about something.”

“Nup. I called the cops.”

“How come?”

“I got ready for school, but Dad left without me. I didn’t know where he was.”

Okay, so that was two puzzle pieces joined up. “So … what did you do then?”

Ben shrugged and took a sip of his hot chocolate. “Went for a walk. He always comes home.”

That made sense, too. Whatever his struggles, Adrian really did love Ben.

“How come you’re here?” Ben asked, as if the question had only just occurred to him.

Shannon explained, but she left out the bit about Adrian being carted off to the psych ward. For now. She’d have to tell him, but not yet. “So … any idea why he’s being so silly today?” she asked Ben as casually as she could.

Ben shot her another look, indicating that she really was stupid. “Mum’s birthday,” he said simply. He turned and slid off the stool, making his way through dropped clothing and other assorted debris across to the bookshelf on the far side of the dining room. He picked up a pile of envelopes and brought them back to Shannon.

“What are these?” she asked innocently.

“Birthday cards for Mum. People Dad doesn’t know. She had lots of friends,” Ben answered simply.

“Poor Adrian,” Shannon murmured, more to herself than to Ben. He was watching her, as if he expected her to go through the pile of cards, so slowly, she did. “Poor Nell,” she whispered under her breath.

Ben had been still just a toddler when Nell began to go through menopause – hot flushes, mood swings, the works. Most days she was able to be polite and pleasant, but some days she was an utter lunatic. On those days, she’d rejected Adrian and Ben cruelly, berating Adrian loudly wherever they happened to be, and actually hitting Ben if he made his presence known or asked for anything.

In the wash-up of everything, after the funeral and the vain attempts to cope with the idea that the person you loved most in the world had committed suicide and abandoned you, neither Adrian nor Ben held any of that against Nell. They just missed her.

Most of the birthday cards seemed to be from people Nell had met on her day trips. In her efforts to find inner peace and tranquillity, Nell had been in the habit of just disappearing for whole days. She would meet all sorts of travellers and have all sorts of adventures, and just leave Adrian and Ben to keep the home fires burning.

There must have been more than twenty cards in total. The very last card, at the bottom of the pile, had a sketch of a lighthouse on the front of it, and Shannon felt her heart sink as she opened it out. Nelly Belly! How’s it hangin’ babe? Remember the Lighthouse? You can turn my lights on any time. Hot Stuff! Jake.

Poor Adrian! The last fight that he and Nell had, before her suicide, was about that lighthouse. Shannon didn’t know much about it, but she knew that Adrian had been furious. Then, of course, her body had been found on the rocks below that very lighthouse, at Maddigans Point, up the coast.

Shannon looked at the closed card for a long time. Maddigans Point Lighthouse was written in very tiny letters below the sketch. Her heart physically ached for her poor brother. As much as she wished he’d snap out of his depression and whatever else was going on, she could completely understand what had triggered this particular episode. She hadn’t known that there’d been another bloke involved.

~~~~~

Together, Shannon and Ben worked at tidying off the dining table.  The boy’s frustration and fear seemed to have subsided somewhat, and he began to chat amiably enough.

“Why to British people say things like ‘pleese’ instead of ‘po-leese,’ anyway?” he asked. “And they say stupid things like ‘daid’ instead of ‘dad,’ too.”

“What do you mean, ‘daid’?” Shannon prompted, stacking up a pile of unpaid bills.

“Well, instead of saying just ‘dad’, like with a short ‘a’ sound, they say it more like ‘a’ and ‘i’ straight after it.”

Shannon toyed with the sound a little, and she could see what he was talking about. She had to admit that she didn’t know, though, so Ben went on, telling her about some television show that he’d been watching of an afternoon, that he really quite liked. Apparently the kids in that show talked like that.

When his talk subsided and the table was cleared and clean, Shannon made Ben a sandwich. Then she got him set up with some magazines and glue, pens and highlighters, to start work on his overdue school project. She knew he was hurt and angry, but she didn’t know any other way to help him, other than getting him doing ‘normal’ things.

She made a quick phone call to the police, just to let them know that Ben was safe and what had happened about Adrian. She had the idea that they hadn’t taken Ben’s phone call seriously in the first place, which was a bit alarming, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.

With the kitchen and the dining room back in workable order, Shannon threw the load of washing into the dryer, put some towels on to wash, and settled herself at Adrian’s main computer. She had another exercise to do for her Thursday night’s writing class, but even before this family crisis, she’d been completely lacking in inspiration.

The storm had passed, but the rain was still falling quite heavily. In due course Shannon knew she’d have to contact her parents and update them, and she’d have to go and check on Adrian in person, too. For now, though, she’d check in on Facebook, and ask in her status update if any of her friends had suggestions that fitted in with the current writing prompt. She’d done that a couple of times before, and it seemed to work well as a means dealing with her self-aimed frustrations.

It was a good distraction for her, anyway. Quite apart from Adrian and Ben, Shannon’s own work situation was weighing pretty heavily on her. ‘Loyal’ work colleagues who stab committed workers in the back – it wasn’t a situation that made anybody happy. Here she was, caught in the middle of it all, and just not knowing whether to stay and fight, or just get the hell out of there. If everyone’s time was taken up with in-fighting, clients weren’t really being helped.

Shannon made her way through a dozen notifications on Facebook, looked at Penny’s new photos, watched a YouTube video that Kurt had posted on her wall, and checked through her newsfeed.

“Facebook makes Daddy cry,” Ben said quietly at her shoulder.

Shannon turned and gathered him up onto her lap. “Why do you think that is?” she asked, kissing his soft little cheek and smoothing his tangled blonde curls.

Ben leaned forward and clicked on an icon in the tray at the bottom of the screen, opening up the email program. “See those emails that are in bold?” he said when the list came up. “Those are Facebook notifications for Mum’s account.”

Shannon glanced through the list, and noted friend requests dotted throughout the notifications about inane games and assorted other information. One name caught her attention. Jake Moncrief. Was that the same man who had sent the birthday card with the lighthouse?

~~~~~

It was still raining when Shannon pulled her car into her parents’ driveway. She and Ben scurried inside, and after he’d had one of Nan’s Anzac biscuits and a glass of lemonade, he took himself through to the lounge room to watch the afternoon kids shows on the television. The one with the British kids would be on soon, so Shannon had timed her visit to encompass that highlight for him.

“What are we going to do?” Shannon begged of her parents, widening her eyes and conveying the sense of helplessness that they all felt.

“Silly bugger’s just gotta pull himself together, that’s all,” her father grumbled. “In my day, blokes came back from war and they just sucked it up and got on with it. Death’s just part of life. All this moping about clearly isn’t helping anyone.”

Shannon and her mum exchanged knowing looks. Dad wasn’t coping well with his son, his pride and joy, being in the loony bin again.

“How about,” Shannon suggested, “I leave Ben with you until dinner time. I’ll go to the hospital and see if Adrian’s up for a talk. Then I’ll get Ben home and give him dinner and get him into bed. What he needs is a bit of routine.”

“He’s a very angry boy, that one,” Pops muttered, loping off to the lounge room to sit with Ben.

Shannon didn’t know whether her father was talking about Adrian or Ben, but given everything, she half thought both were at least a bit justified for their current messed up state.

She borrowed some of her mother’s clothes, which were more her style than Adrian’s huge shirt and track pants were, and headed off to the hospital to see her big brother.

~~~~~

Adrian was sitting on the side of the bed, fully clothed and still clutching the ancient lunchbox when Shannon walked into the ward. “Hey sis,” he said clearly, but without emotion. He looked at her, but only briefly.

Shannon took a seat in the chair beside the bed, and thought that Adrian actually seemed reasonably okay.

“So what’s with the lunchbox?” she asked, opting to sound as normal as possible. Sometimes that was the best approach.

“Huh,” Adrian said, setting it on the bed beside him. “It was Nell’s when she was at school. It’s the thing I remember more than anything about Nell in kindy. We used to play football with it, and she’d get so upset. I replaced the handle on it when we were about ten. It broke and she cried, and Mum saw what happened, and she made me.”

Shannon didn’t know how to answer that, so she just stayed quiet.

“When we got together, properly I mean, this was our wedding ring. There was a lot of history to this stupid box, y’know. Not just the football.” Adrian sighed, not in a melancholy way, more like a release. “She used to keep our letters in here when we were teenagers. Then when she wasn’t ready to settle down, she shoved the empty box at me. I ended up carting it all over Asia and Europe with me. When we finally decided to be together, we stood under that big gum tree on the cliff and held the lunch box between us. We promised each other that we’d try to only put happy memories into it for the rest of our lives.”

He looked up at Shannon with clear eyes. “She used to go away to clear her head,” he said. It wasn’t said in apologetic, excusatory manner, just a statement of fact. “It was part of keeping things good between us.”

It seemed very important for Shannon to hold his gaze now. She did, and asked, “Did it work?”

Adrian nodded slowly. “Yeah. It helped a lot. That lighthouse … she really loved that place. She took Ben and me there a couple of times and showed us around. She said that she loved to sit on the rocks and just watch the waves crashing down below. The lighthouse was like this reminder that even when things are rough, love still shines, and it’s a beacon to guide you through the storm and safely into port.”

Shannon didn’t know what to say to that either, so again she just waited.

“She thought she was safely through the storm, you know.”

A doctor and the head nurse came into the room then. They explained that Adrian had run out of his medication some days earlier and hadn’t bothered to refill his prescription. They asked Shannon if the family could perhaps keep a better eye on that in future. They said that Adrian was probably fine to go home, provided he was consistent in taking his medication.

Just as they were leaving the room, two policemen turned up, just to follow through on the phone calls from Ben and Shannon.

Adrian didn’t offer any apology, or explanation beyond what the doctor himself told the police.

Once it was just himself and Shannon in the room with the two policemen, though, he jumped to his feet and shoved the battered old lunchbox in their direction. “I reckon she was murdered,” he said, sounding suddenly animated. “In there is a whole bunch of emails and cards and stuff from a bloke called Jake. There’s one more at home that I forgot. She met him up at Maddigans Point, at the lighthouse there. He was very taken with her, but she wouldn’t do anything with him. He tried to contact her a few times, but he’d stopped for about two months before she died. She was coming out the other side of all the menopause nonsense, and she was really starting to love life again. She just went up there for the day because the place made her happy. She didn’t mean to die, I’m absolutely sure of it.”

The two police officers frowned at each other, but one of them did take the lunchbox from Adrian, probably because he seemed so adamant about it.

The taller of the two said, “Have you got any evidence, sir?”

Adrian frowned. “I’m not sure. Whatever I think might be is in there. You know when she was found, you blokes kept it out of the papers until after we’d had the service? Well it was after her name was published that this bloke Jake started sending her cards and letters. Then, last night, there was a friend request came through to her Facebook account from him.”

Again, the police officers exchanged a glance.

Insistent, Adrian went on. “I mean, this was someone that Nell didn’t want to talk to ever again. It’s been all through the papers that she’s dead, but he goes to the trouble of finding her on Facebook. I saw that notification come through last night, and I just want to vomit at the thought of the guy. He’d done everything he could to ruin our relationship, and last night …” He turned a look of abject apology towards Shannon. “Last night I wanted to vomit, but then I just felt so guilty because Nell and I had a fight the afternoon she died. She reckoned I paid too much attention to all the stupid computer games, and if I wasn’t so hell bent on winning that particular round, I’d have gone with her to the lighthouse. That’s what she wanted, you know.”

Now it seemed that all the occupants of the room were confused, except Adrian.

He persisted: “Nell never took the lunchbox with her to the lighthouse. It was a private, at-home thing. But because she was feeling so much better in herself, she wanted us both to go and kind of rededicate ourselves there. I did mean to go, but then I got way further in the tournament I was in than I expected, and so I wanted to leave the trip until the next day, and we fought. I didn’t know until hours after she’d left that she’d gone alone, and it wasn’t until Ben got dropped home from playing at Dane’s house that I realised she should have been home again. They found the lunchbox way down the road from the lighthouse – nowhere near where Nell’s car was parked or where her body was found. It was only last night that it hit me that suicide was all just wrong, somehow.”

The policemen, with barely disguised reluctance, agreed to take the lunchbox and get fingerprints from it. They would come by Adrian’s house the next day to collect the envelope with Jake Moncrief’s handwriting on it.

~~~~~

Ben seemed glad enough for his father to be home again, but he was certainly very keen for Shannon to stay with them, too. He said as much before he went to bed. “It’s nice when the house is tidy,” he said when he kissed her goodnight.

Sense and order did seem to be starting to seep back into Adrian, Shannon had to admit. Even during that first evening, he wordlessly helped her clean and tidy through the house, but he was ready for bed himself well before ten o’clock.

“Where’s the red towel that was in the laundry?” he asked, coming back to the kitchen where Shannon was having a final cuppa, after he’d bade her goodnight.

“I washed it,” Shannon said lightly. “The first load, the clothes, are all folded and back in your drawers. The towels will be in the dryer. Why?”

He looked abashed. “I was about to wash it myself,” he said, in a way that sounded like a confession.

“How come?” Shannon asked, puzzled.

“It was my screaming towel.” He seemed ashamed of the admission.

Shannon just widened her eyes and blinked at him.

Adrian shrugged. “When it all just got too much for me, I’d put the towel around my face and scream into it so that I didn’t scare Ben.”

Shannon put her mug of tea down and put her arms around her brother. “I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Yeah. I know. But I reckon there’s a chance I’ll be okay now.”

~~~~~

Adrian stayed on medication for another year after his last episode. The doctors by then agreed with him that he no longer needed the help.

Shannon gave up the lease on her flat and went to live with Adrian and Ben for a while, just to help out and stop the house being too much of a blokezone. It took her a while to decide that political fracas is painfully common in every workplace – somehow the incidences of intensity are cyclical, and in between times, it is actually possible to help people in very real and practical ways. For the most part, she came to enjoy both her work life and her home life.

Ben took a while to settle properly at school, preferring to spend time on the beach watching the waves in all reality. His dad came to accept that grief always leaves a scar on all it touches, but what that scar looks like is often very different, even between people who have loved the same departed one so completely.

Nell had been dead for almost three years before two detectives arrived on the doorstep one evening to let them know that at last Jake Moncrief had been arrested. After a piece on a television program, some tourists had come forward with a photograph of Jake and Nell in the background of their happy snap at Maddigans Point Lighthouse, clearly arguing. They’d taken three shots using a tripod and self-timer, and each frame contained decent evidence. Fingerprints inside Nell’s lunchbox, and a pattern of behaviour that was echoed in several other apparent suicides, where Jake was always somehow involved, had all sealed his fate.

~~~~~

On a summer’s evening, just as the breeze swung around to bring some coolness at the end of the day, Adrian, Shannon and Ben all stepped out of Adrian’s car at Maddigans Point.

Ben was in high school now, and Adrian had sold most of his computer gaming paraphernalia and was back with the road crew, working hard, coaching Ben’s soccer team, and for the most part enjoying being a dad. Shannon was married to Greg, one of the policemen who had helped solve Nell’s murder, and they were expecting their first baby around Easter time.

“Thanks for coming,” he said to Shannon. “It’s just something I’ve wanted to do, and Ben and I couldn’t have come through this without you.”

She smiled, and stood with her arm around Ben while Adrian read out a few lines from a Joan Baez song that he and Nell had loved back in the seventies.

Just one favour of you, my love /  If I should die today  / Take me down to where the hills / Meet the sea on a stormy day / Ride a ridge on a snow white horse / And throw my ashes away / To the wind and the sand / Where my song began.

Together, Adrian and Ben released Nell’s ashes to be blown away on the ocean’s breeze. “It’s not a stormy day, but it sure was, the day I knew it was murder. And there’s no snow white horse, cos I’m no hero, but you can be at peace, Nell. We’ll live again now.”

Shannon stood with her arms around her big brother and her nearly-as-big nephew. “I guess it pays to listen to that small inner voice, doesn’t it?” she said.

Nobody said it, but they all knew that despite the tragedy, they had survived. Some good had come out of the bad, and yes, there was still life to be lived.

The Car Trip January 9, 2010

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt:
include the following items: river, stranger, sock, idea, pack
and at least one of the following: a chicken, an aardvark or a donkey.


“She used to walk down by the ri-i-ver, she loved to watch the sun go downnnn …” Lachie yowled from the back seat, singing along with the radio in off-key, dramatic tones that were designed to drive his older sister and mother to distraction.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Lach! Shut up, will you!” Keely screeched eventually, unable to take his wailing any more. He was absolutely desecrating her favourite Richard Marx song!

“But it’s one of your favourite songs!” Lachie objected. “I’m just serenading you because I lo-o-ove you!” He was being a pain, and he knew it. He was mimicking the way that Oliver had serenaded Keely last New Year, with the help of the karaoke SingStar contraption that Lachie had so considerately taken along to the joint family barbeque. If Lachie could remember what the song was that Oliver had sung at that time, he’d have been singing that, for sure. Keely had been embarrassed enough at the time to realise that Oliver was singing to her, but it hadn’t prepared her even a tiny bit for the proposal that followed.

“Just ignore him,” Sarah suggested, keeping her eyes on the road and wondering how long it would be until Hamish woke up from his nap and vied with Lachlan for attention. “You know he’s just reacting.” She flicked the radio off, in an effort to maintain a semblance of atmospheric conviviality between the car’s occupants.

Keely sent a grateful look in her mother’s direction. There were eight years between her and Lachie, but sometimes it may as well have been eight decades. Sometimes it felt like there was a bigger generation gap between the two of them than there was between their mother and either of them. Their mother was right – Lachie was just reacting. He was used to having her and Hamish around all the time, and after tonight, they wouldn’t be any more.

“That’s a weird song,” Lachie mused from the back seat.

“How so?” Sarah asked, slowing down for a hairpin bend.

“Well, the guy doesn’t actually say whether he was guilty of killing the girl, or he wasn’t. I mean, he might just have been a different sort of bloke, and the sheriff just assumed he killed her. But it sounds like he was her friend, so why would he kill her? Maybe it was some stranger that killed her, and the sheriff was just framing the guy.”

Sarah laughed. “There’s no doubt about you, Lachie my boy, you do think deeply about things!”

“Yeah, well I’ve been thinking deeply about a lotta stuff lately,” he retorted with uncharacteristic darkness. He reached across the back seat and straightened Hamish’s sock, as if it was something to do to distract him from his sudden moodiness.

“Oh, okay,” Keely sighed. “I’ll bite. What have you been thinking so deeply about?” She turned around and grinned at him teasingly over her shoulder. “Don’t tell me! You had this mad idea that Oliver is really some closet serial killer …”

“Don’t be stupid!” Lachie snapped. “You’ve known him since you were in primary school. Nah, it’s more that I was wondering how I’m gonna keep being a proper uncle to Hamo, here. I mean, who’s gonna teach him about Albert the Aardvark? Who’s gonna sit there and remind him that A can say ‘a’ as in apple, ‘ay’ as in mate, ‘ah’ as in raft, ‘aw’ as in talk, and ‘o’ as in what? I mean, you and Oliver will both be working, and Mum’s not gonna to be around to pick him up from daycare …”

Keely frowned at him. “We’ll both be spending lots of time with Hamish, before and after work, and on weekends,” she said, perplexed. “We’ve met the lady who’ll be caring for him and taking him to pre-school, and she’s really lovely.” She felt a bit defensive, really – it was as if Lachie was accusing her of neglecting her own son. “And school will teach him about phonics!”

“I bet they don’t! And anyway, I won’t be spending any time with him!” Lachie sighed. He stared out the window, and after another furtive glance, Keely gathered that he was somewhat choked up.

She glanced at her mother, who just raised an eyebrow and kept her eyes on the road.

“You can come visit us every school holidays if you like,” Keely offered.

“Huh,” Lachie grunted. “Ollie won’t like that!”

“Why on earth not?”

“He doesn’t like me since I punched him!”

Keely laughed out loud at that. “You were ten!” she exclaimed. “You were defending my honour!”

Lachie just growled something under his breath in response, and it was Sarah who spoke soothingly to him.

“Darling, I’m sure that Oliver has long forgiven that. We’ve all grown up a lot in the five years since that, now, haven’t we?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.” Lachie could actually remember as clearly as if it had just happened, how Oliver and Keely had arrived in his parents’ kitchen and said that they were expecting a baby. They’d both looked so scared – Oliver was nineteen, but Keely hadn’t yet had her birthday, and they were both just starting into their second years at universities in different cities.

Oliver’s parents, who were old friends of Sarah and Wayne, were sitting at the breakfast bar having a glass of wine while Sarah cooked dinner. Oliver’s mum, Diane, had spilled her wine and begun to cry.

“You’ll have to get married,” Peter, Oliver’s father, had declared, attempting to take charge of the situation. “You can probably get your job back at the hardware store. At least rent’s cheaper here than it is in the city.”

Wayne began to berate the pair for their stupidity. They’d both grown up in the church. They both knew better. How could they shame their parents like that! Blah, blah, blah.

Lachie distinctly remembered his mother turning towards the stove, and almost in slow motion, turning off every hotplate, one after the other. Then she turned back to the horrified little gathering, put her hand on Wayne’s arm, which was always a signal for him to hush, and said calmly, “No darling, we’ll have no more talk like that. Oliver and Keely didn’t plan this, I’m sure. Now we’ll all just have to grow up and deal with the situation that is. Won’t we?” She looked around meaningfully, meeting every pair of eyes one after the other, until she had a consensus.

“It was during the Christmas break,” Keely wailed, crying now. “It was at Davo’s party – we’d both had too much to drink …”

“And you were raised better than that, too!” Wayne bawled, but Sarah silenced him with a look.

“Hush now,” Sarah had instructed firmly. “That’s not our business. Now, we all have to be very practical and grown up about this.”

And Sarah – goody-two-shoes, never did anything wrong, never even had a sinful thought in all her life Perfect Sarah – outlined a plan that left everyone gaping. There would be no wedding! There would be no ‘doing the right thing for the sake of appearing like the wrong thing had never been done.’ As comfortable as Oliver and Keely were with each other, they didn’t really know if they had the kind of connection that would endure a lifetime. This wasn’t an event that they’d planned, but this child was never to be treated like an accident. This child was precious in God’s sight, and every one of them had a duty of care to ensure that the child was raised with love and unity, to the very best of everyone’s ability.

Numbly, Oliver had asked Sarah how that was even possible.

Sarah told him that he would finish university, and he would be as involved with the baby as he and Keely were comfortable with. Keely would continue with her studies for as long as she was able, and after the baby was born, she would continue via a distance program. She would have the full support of her parents and Oliver’s parents, and Oliver was free to come and go as he or Keely chose.

Lachie had been aghast at the proposal. It would mean that there was a squalling baby in the house, getting into his personal things and wrecking everything! That was when he stood up, walked over to Oliver, and punched him square in the nose.

In the back seat of the car, Lachie chuckled. It was kind of funny, in retrospect.

“So, you’re not gonna be a chicken and back out of this?” he asked Keely. “I mean, you’re marrying a bloke who works in an office. That’s gonna be bo-or-ing!”

She smiled around at him. “No, no chickening out,” she said with certainty. “Mum was right all those years ago. If we’d married out of obligation, we’d have probably hated each other. As it is, we’ve had time to observe each other as the parents of our amazing little boy, and we’ve got to know each other as real friends. What we’re doing now … it was worth waiting for.”

“Yeah, well if you’d reckoned it was worth waiting for at the start, you wouldn’t’ve even been in this mess,” Lachie mumbled. But then Hamish began to stir, as Sarah slowed the car to begin the steep gravelled ascent to the farm-stay where the wedding would be held.

Something shifted in Keely’s heart as she was about to snap at her annoying brother. She turned and saw him grin at her. “Yeah, well, look at all you’d have missed out on if I hadn’t been stupid way back then. Now you’re complaining that we’re taking him away from you!”

“Yeah, there’s that,” Lachie acknowledged softly, with a sheepish grin back at her.

Hamish gave a start, with all four limbs jerking stiff for an instant before his eyes flew open and he sighed, relaxed and smiled. He always woke up like that. Lachie picked up Eeyore, Hamish’s tattered Winnie the Pooh stuffed donkey toy, and handed it to him for a cuddle.

“Hey matey,” he said gently, reaching to give the little boy’s hair a ruffle. “Did you pack your trucks? I bet this place has heaps of dirt for us to shift around.”

Keely turned back to her mother, after greeting her newly awake little boy. Her own eyes were suddenly prickling with tears. “How am I going to do this without Lachie?” she asked quietly. “Or you? Or Dad?” Her father had been at the venue for hours already, making sure that everything was set up properly.

Her parents had been amazing throughout all her pregnancy, Hamish’s birth, and her frustration as she struggled to get the hang of breast-feeding and sleepless nights and endless nappies. Then there were her efforts to finish her studies and cope with a toddler who slobbered over her papers and tore her textbooks and refused to sleep long enough for her to write coherent assignments. Oliver’s parents had remained too horrified to be very involved, clearly blaming her for leading their innocent son astray. Her parents, though, had just smiled knowingly and said that they’d had hormones too, so it wasn’t like they had no idea how it had happened.

Sarah was slowing the car now, into the car park of the farm-stay. She turned off the engine and twisted to clasp Keely’s hands.

“Darling girl,” she said with a gentle smile. “You will cope with this change just as you’ve coped with everything else. One step, one breath at a time. And there is no doubt that there will be times when it’s tough, just because that’s how life is. It won’t be perfect, but your dad and I are confident that it will all be good. You and Oliver have learned to work together, to put your son and each other before your own desires.” She leaned forward and kissed Keely’s wet cheek. “Here’s Dad now, to help us with the bags, darling. Let’s get you married, shall we?”

The rest of the day was a blur, as Keely dressed and walked down the rose petal strewn lawn aisle between rows of white be-ribboned chairs, towards a rose festooned arbour where Oliver waited, handsome in his suit and looking both certain and nervous. Keely clutched her father’s arm and was preceded up the aisle by her suited-up small son, and her three best friends resplendent in fushcia. She exchanged vows with Oliver, the father of her son, the man with whom she had come to share such a deep and abiding love. She held his hand, they laughed, they ate, they danced. Blur though it was, all day Keely’s heart sang.

Praise you Lord, for you have turned the darkness into light before us and made the rough places smooth. You have worked all things together for our good. You have turned our mourning into dancing, given us garments of praise and joy in our hearts. Thank you, Lord! Praise you, Lord.

As the wedding car drove off down the driveway, crunching gravel beneath its tyres, Lachie stood in front of his parents, holding Hamish’s sweaty little hand with one of his, and waving an enthusiastic farewell with the other. The car disappeared from sight, and he turned to face his beaming father and teary but widely smiling mother. “I suppose it’ll be alright,” he conceded reluctantly. “Who knows. They might even let me be an uncle again one day. It’s not like they make horrible kids, or anything.”

Isolation December 26, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt: “Write about what you didn’t say.”


They arrived a few days before Christmas.

“Oh! You people are so good to me!” she exclaimed, hugging them all closely. “To drive all this way!”

They smiled and made cups of tea and opened the biscuits they’d brought. They put up a small tree that had fibre optic lights on the ends of the branches, and which sparkled and shone as soon as they plugged it in. They got a list of errands she wanted to run, and asked about her expectations of Christmas Day, and then they went off to their lodgings.

They came again the next morning, and flitted in and out and around about during the day, running her errands, taking her places, and generally making everything ready for Christmas. They brought food and they chatted with her, and she drank in all she could from the adults. The children stayed quiet for the most part, and when they did speak she ignored them. This wasn’t about them.

They went again of course, to their lodgings overnight. They wouldn’t have all fitted in her tiny space, all stretched out to sleep. She felt an emptiness when they left, but it would only be a few short hours until they returned again.

She went shopping the next day. They had asked which shops she wanted to go to, but she did not say which shops she wanted to go to. Instead, she said what she wanted to buy, so they took her to the best places to buy those things. Those shops were not where she wanted to shop, however, but she did not say that. Instead, she politely explained why the shops they’d taken her to would not do. When they finally figured out her preference, she brightened visibly. “Yes, that will do,” she said, and they took her to her favourite shops.

Christmas Day dawned, and when they came, everybody was on their best behaviour. They brought all the food with them and got busy creating a festive Christmas lunch. Everyone wore tinsel in their hair, they played carols and other Christmassy tunes on the CD player, and at first there was a lot of laughter and noise.

They gave her a glass of wine, and they all sat around together opening presents and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over each other’s treasures. Her pile was the biggest, and she was well pleased with that. They handed around bowls of nuts and cherries, and she stockpiled her chocolates and books and clothes and perfumes and photos and gadgetry. It all felt very Christmassy and she felt very special. Someone even tied some tinsel in her freshly-dyed platinum hair.

While they ate the Christmas feast, tightly seated around her small table on an assortment of borrowed garden chairs, she regaled them with stories of her neighbour’s childhood in a concentration camp in Germany, another friend’s bowel cancer, and her own incontinence. The trays of honey-glazed ham, stuffed and roasted turkey, and mountains of baked vegetables, jugs of gravy and dishes of cranberry sauce steadily diminished as she talked, but when the children could take no more doom and gloom, and one of them showed her their cartilage piercing, she was affronted.

She could not have said exactly what it was she was affronted about, but clearly they were not enthralled with her stories, as indeed they should have been. Mavis’s horror stories were fascinating, as was the saga of Wanda’s rapidly progressing cancer. And they should all know what dramas they might face regarding incontinence in their old age!

She feigned an interest in a mobile phone function, but by the time the explanation was complete, she was tired and very miffed that the attention had not remained on her.

She did not say that she was tired and would like a rest. Instead, resuming her place at head of the table while dessert was being prepared, she said loudly so everyone would hear, “Right! As soon as we’ve eaten, you people can go! I’ll do the tidying up. You people have done enough.”

Calmly they explained that they had brought dishes from their lodgings, which they would need to clean and take with them. They assured her that they would clean up swiftly and be gone as soon as they could. She was not pleased at their disobedience, however, and repeated her edict.

Her son, her precious, perfect son spoke sharply to her then, rephrasing the reply she had already been given. She did not soften, saying that she was just tired, but understood the requirement for them to return their borrowed dishes. Instead she snapped, “All right! I heard you the first time!”

Between themselves, they restored the affable atmosphere that had been destroyed, somehow sweeping her along and into it again. The dessert, a frozen ice cream pudding covered in chocolate, was delicious, and that probably helped her to resume a pleasant countenance. Soon after dessert was consumed, they were indeed gone, and she was left to finger over her gifts and ponder the lovingness behind each gift choice. “Ah, how they love me,” she sighed into the quiet. “They did all this for me.”

They took her out to a restaurant for dinner, on the last night of their stay.  She was not pleased with the choice of restaurant. She said several times that she liked this place or that place, but she did not say outright which place she did want to go to, and there were dietary considerations beyond her own needs, and so the choice was made.

“Oh, I don’t much like the range on this menu,” she said. “The place down the road has a lovely lazonya.” The children tried to correct her pronunciation of ‘lasagne,’ but she just smiled at them patronisingly and added. “Or the Club has a lovely schnitzel. The Chinese place does a lovely sweet and sour. Or there’s that seafood place down by the river. I hear that’s lovely!”

The didn’t get the hint, however, and stayed where they were. She finally made a selection, and worked hard to keep the conversation centred around Mavis’s horror childhood in the concentration camp in Germany, Wanda’s aggressive bowel cancer, and her own inconvenient incontinence. Rudely, the children kept popping up with other topics, and it became increasingly difficult for her to tell them again about poor Mavis’s horrors, Wanda’s suffering, or her own bladder issues. This time, even the parents didn’t help.

The food arrived, and clearly it was below par. “Oh, I don’t go much on this!” she exclaimed. “Look at the pink in that steak!” she charged her son, poking her knife towards his plate. “You should send that back!” When he refused, she solicited agreement from everyone else around the table that their meal was not the best they’d ever eaten, either. “Even that meal on Christmas Day was better than this!”

Perhaps she had meant to elevate the Christmas Day fare over restaurant quality food, and she missed entirely that her words did not sound like that.

“Mum’s a very good cook,” a child said quietly.

“Oh, there’s no better cook than your mother!” she said, offended that they thought she might say otherwise. She was focused, however, on making it clear that their choice of restaurant was at fault on this particular occasion. “We had a meal once, at Circular Quay, do you remember?” she aimed at her son. “The schnitzel at that place was just beautiful!” She said it loudly, inferring that the chef should hear and understand that he really had some work to do to get his efforts anywhere near that superb standard.

She would have liked dessert, but nobody else seemed keen. Not wanting to appear greedy, she declined too. “Oh, you’re probably right,” she said to them. “It wouldn’t be worth the money to have dessert in this place. You’ve wasted enough of your money already!” She rather hoped the staff might hear that comment too, and improve their service and menu in future.

“Will we go for ice cream?” she asked brightly as they headed back to the mini-van.

“No, we have to be out of here early in the morning,” they replied. “It’s a long drive home.”

They took her back to her place. They hugged her. Her son walked her to her door and saw her safely inside. When the door closed, she felt strangely alone.

They had not said how much they would miss her. They had not said what a beloved grandmother she was. She had said how much she would  miss them, and how wonderful they were for coming all this way just for her. No matter how hard she tried, they just did not adore her in the way she longed for.

They did not say to her that the joy of a meal shared, whether in a restaurant or at home, is enjoying the people you share it with. Perhaps, as someone older and supposedly wiser, they expected it was something she would already know.

They did not tell her that she had behaved like a self-centred, ungrateful brat. Good manners did not permit speaking to your elders in such a way.

In the car, on the way back to their lodgings, one of the children did say, “Dad, can we go for a drive?”

Usually, he would have just said no. Instead, he asked, “How come?”

“I feel like I need to detoxify!” the child replied passionately.

They all agreed. They knew the prettiest sights around the place and drove to those, purging their souls of the unavoidable nastiness they had endured all evening.

They bought gelato from a late-night roadside stall and enjoyed licking icy sweetness from the cones, all huddled together at the end of a pier.

“It’s good to be us,” someone ventured.

They all agreed, and hugged each other close.

“Dad, how come Grandma isn’t part of us?” the youngest child asked.

“I don’t know, mate,” he replied. “We’ve tried every way we know how to include her. And be a part of her life. It’s just that it’s always got to be about her, and she gets upset the minute that it’s not.”

“I know that Christmas is about others,” a teenager put forward. “But next year does it have to be about Grandma? She sucks all the joy out of it.”

“Selfishness does that,” another child responded with downcast insight.

They all held each other close, and the adults smiled over the children’s heads at each other. Whatever they did next Christmas, they would not bow to anyone’s selfishness.

Selfishness is isolating. This Christmas, make a vow to yourself that you will not be selfish, and you will not allow your life to be one of isolation. Love others.

Sally Sparrow December 14, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises, Poetry.
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Writing prompt: ‘s’ … and alliteration with at least 2 other letters. (ie write your story with as many words beginning with ‘s’ as possible.)

This was an interesting writing prompt, and I didn’t find it really lent itself to the flow of a more ‘normal’ story, so I went with just playing with the alliteration. I’m not sure I’m happy with how it ended, but the last six lines took 4 hours because of all the interruptions, and writing never flows without concentrated efforts. It’ll have to do for now, though. All up, it was fun to play with – thanks Jane!


Sally Sparrow sipped a tiny teaspoon’s worth of wonderful water from the beautiful birdbath in Billy Baxter’s backyard.

Sunshine skimmed through towering trees and wondrous, wavering notes thrilled from the throats of three thrushes nearby.

Such a sensational, seasonally-perfect summer’s day in Sally Sparrow’s psyche.

Just as Sal jumped from jacaranda to japonica, the thrilling thrush sounds sensationalised into shrilling shrieks.

Sally squeaked a sharp screech and hid herself hastily, making the most of the mass plantings providing particularly perfect protection.

What wicked wandering wildcat would intrude, illicit and invasive, to haul havoc into this heavenliness?

Sally studied the scenery, sighting a dutiful dog dozing devoid of all dignity, brazen on its back beside the back door.

A child chortled cheerfully, chucking fistfuls of flowers forth at its friends, for their amusement, approval and abundance.

Giving the garden a God-fearing glare, Sally swooped skywards to tremble in the treetops with her troops.

Three thorough thrushes nestled nervously nearby, too terrified to tell over the odious occurrence which had wasted their winsome warbling.

As amity again affected the garden, garrulous gossiping grew gradually, but Sally stayed sensitive to surrounding sights and sounds.

At last she located the exact evacuation evocation explanation: a horrible hawk high on his eagle-eyed aerie.

“The babies! The babies! The babies!” she cried, calling a cacophony credible and clear, babbling boldly from bird to bird.

The message made meaning to apt avians: alert to protect their precious progeny, they waged wild winged warfare, furiously fighting their foe.

Sally Sparrow, too small to significantly succeed at the scene, cheered the challenging champions, her chums.

Their assault was astonishing, amazing, audacious! Horrified hawk heaved his haughtiness high, away and aloft to another, less attentive assault.

Sensationally sabotaging sly slaughterer’s strategy, returned regiment rested, watered well and weighted by whopping-great worms.

Blessed bounty of Billy Baxter’s backyard settled subsequently still, soothed in societal singsong started by Sally the Sparrow.

Lime Green and Tongue Tied December 14, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt was:
Choose one of the following and go for it: the drums led her on; fly on the wall; why is he dressed up; I couldn’t wait.

To be honest, I’ve been a bit bored with writing exercises lately, but haven’t the time to really sink my teeth into a longer story, so I set myself the task of incorporating all the prompts into one story.


“Oh, you’ve got no idea!” Megan exclaimed to Hillary, laughing as she lifted Caleb down off the change table in the corner and set him down to toddle outside and play in the sandpit with the others. “I couldn’t believe the colour of those bridesmaids’ dresses! I mean, lime green, of all things! What on earth was Poppy thinking? And with those deep pink bouquets, too! She really wasn’t thinking of the base tones of those girls’ skin, let me tell you!”

Hillary, who was scrolling through the wedding photos on Megan’s laptop, was shaking her head in consternation, but chuckling at the incongruity of it all, too. “Don’t you wish you’d been a fly on the wall when Poppy told Isabelle she’d be wearing lime green?” she cackled.

Megan started filling up sippy cups with water. “With her bright red hair? Isabelle must’ve had a fit!”

“Oh, and I didn’t realise she had Ellie in the bridal party too!” Hillary froze in front of the laptop screen, her jaw dropped and eyes wide at the sight of Ellie with her stark white skin and bleached blonde hair, dressed in such a vivid shade of lime green!

Setting the sippy cups in a row along the end of the bench, Megan reached for a hand of bananas, leaning to gawp over Hillary’s shoulder for just a moment. “All through the wedding, I kept telling Rob that I just couldn’t wait to get home and upload the photos so I could show you. The whole thing was like a circus! Wait till you get to the photos of the reception, and you see Poppy’s brother.”

They gossiped on, while Megan prepared morning tea for the little ones, and Hillary scrolled through photo after endless photo of Rob’s brother’s wedding. The five children, ranging in age from eighteen months up to ‘five an’ a quarter an a leetle bit,’ as Joanna insisted was her current age, were all standing around the little table by the window when Hillary let out a shriek: “Oh for crying out loud! Why is he dressed up like that?”

Megan peeked, to make sure that Hillary was looking at the photo she’d been expecting such reaction to, then set about mopping up the mess created by the older children (who had taken the lids of their sippy cups) in reaction to Hillary’s shriek. “He was the Master of Ceremonies,” she explained over her shoulder. “Felix reckoned, that with Poppy being such an out there sort of girl, he could hardly just dress in a normal suit to get the party started.”

“So he dressed up like the ringmaster from a circus?” Hillary was outraged. “Poor David must have just died.” Her tone expressed so much more than her words could have done, and her oldest friend, knowing her as she did, understood all the full impart of them, too.

Hillary had had quite a thing for Dave ever since they’d been partnered up at Rob and Megan’s wedding.

Dave was married at the time, though, and he and Tessa had Joanna already. Maxie came along about nine months after Rob and Megan’s wedding, but Dave’s marriage was in tatters by the time Sara was born. Megan and Rob already had Letitia by then, and Caleb was born to them just months after Dave and Tessa’s divorce.

The tightly spaced cousins had always played together, so when Tessa refused to have the children while Dave was on his honeymoon with Poppy, of course Megan and Rob had them. Hillary had looked after all five cousins while the wedding took place, and the pathos of that situation hadn’t escaped Megan. In some ways, she felt like poking fun at Poppy was the only comfort she could provide for poor Hillary, whose heart was broken again.

Hillary and Dave did have one date, soon after his divorce from Tessa was final, but Dave told Rob afterwards that he felt no chemistry at all. He met Poppy the following week, and a year later, they were married.

“He’s kind of cute, do you think?” Hillary ventured, not having moved beyond that photo of Felix dressed as a flamboyant ringmaster. As she spoke, she realised that in all the photos she’d seen so far, Dave had clearly enjoyed all the flamboyance of his and Poppy’s wedding celebrations, just as he loved the extravagance of Poppy’s personality. It was good for him, and Hillary felt sorry that she’d been so self absorbed that she hadn’t been a supportive friend to him through any of it.

Megan laughed. “Oh, you can decide that for yourself, later. Felix is moving some of his gear into our garage, while he’s renovating the unit he’s just bought. Rob said that he and Dave and Felix are going to pull together a garage sale of all their old stuff, in the next month or so.” She caught herself thinking, ‘Maybe Rob’s right,’ and reached for her mobile phone.

Hillary tried to remember what she’d heard about Felix. It wasn’t much. He’d been working for an aid organisation overseas somewhere, but had decided to come home in time for the wedding. He was a doctor, she thought, older than Poppy, quite wild in his youth, but seemed to have turned out alright.

In the middle of the afternoon, Joanna and Max were having some quiet time in front of Playschool on the television, and the younger three were all asleep.

“I’ll just pop out to the shops, if that’s okay,” Megan suggested to Hillary as they finished a cuppa. “You can stay for dinner if you like. When’s your next shift?”

Hillary stifled a yawn. “Oh, I’ve got graveyard tonight. I should probably have a nap.”

Megan had no qualms leaving her friend to keep half an eye on the children and enjoy a doze in Rob’s favourite chair while she went to grab some extra food for dinner. She wouldn’t be long, anyway.

Hillary hadn’t been dozing for very long at all when the sound of drums woke her – not too loud, but loud enough to be intrusive. “What’s that?” she vocalised, annoyed, struggling to regain her too-recently-abandoned lucidity.

“Unca Felix is puttin’ his fings in da gawage,” Max told her, not shifting his eyes from the television.

“I gave him the key,” Joanna informed her absently.

Annoyed, Hillary stormed out the back door. The drums led her on, and would have done even if she’d been blindfolded and hadn’t made the trek through the shrubbery and all the way down to the back corner of the huge block a thousand times in the past. Annoyingly, whoever was playing clearly had some skill.

As Hillary flung open the side door of the fibro garage in her anger, she was in no way prepared for the entire centre of the cracked cement floor to have been cleared, and to see drummer and drum-kit right in the centre of the cleared space, bathed in the light of Rob’s single fluorescent tube. It looked like they, man and drum kit, were on centre stage in some huge auditorium. The drummer’s eyes were closed, as if he was just feeling the rhythm he was creating.

Hillary moved around in front of him. Jamming her hands on her hips, she yelled at the top of her voice, “For crying out loud! There are sleeping babies in the house!” She wasn’t at all sure that he even could hear her, but she must have had her best nurse-with-difficult-patient shrill in high gear, because the drumming ceased immediately.

Felix’s eyes flew open, and he stared at her. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed, getting hastily to his feet, but still taking the time to lay his drumsticks down carefully on the top of one of the drums. “I forgot! Joey said that Aunt Hillary was asleep too. I’m so sorry!”

Hillary, quite unprepared for the blueness of his eyes, the dimple in his right cheek, or the cute way his hair curled against his neck and cheeks because of the sweat from his drumming, allowed him to shake her hand.

Then she snapped out of it. “I’m not in the least worried about myself!” she retorted, hauling her recalcitrant hand back into the safety of her own personal space. “Babies are asleep!” And so saying, she turned on her heel and stalked back through the unkempt greenery towards the house to make sure that babies really did stay asleep. She felt flushed and like her heart was racing. Far less composed than in all her distant schoolgirl years!

For his part, Felix turned to grin at his drum kit. “Yeah, okay,” he chuckled aloud. “Time to abandon the teenage fantasies. You were fun while you lasted, but it’s garage sale time for you.” As he pulled his mobile phone out of his jeans pocket, he told the empty doorway, “Rob’s right. Playing doctors and nurses looks like it’ll be way more satisfying.” And before he made his way up to the house in Hillary’s wake, he send Megan a text message: Would love to stay for dinner. 6 months max. No lime green. Bright red! 🙂

The Office Secret November 30, 2009

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Writing prompt: compulsion, executive, obtain, wistful, cathartic, naive.


She was a small, delicate woman, who moved about the office with a sense of compulsion. Quick and efficient, yet poised and effortless with it, the younger women could not fathom her at all. She had an almost ethereal beauty, gliding through her purposes with an economy and grace of movement beyond their comprehension or capability.

Marlené had worked for many years as the executive assistant to David Grant, company chief and noted philanthropist. The office girls liked to call her Mar-leen, in their common, dishonouring manner, but Marlené herself would always correct them with dignity, engaging their eyes with her own steady, knowing blue ones, and say with a firm, well-modulated tone and an eloquent smile, “Mah-lane-uh.” She had learned, at the hands of a previous generation of office girls, to pronounce ‘lane’ rather than ‘lay’ as the middle syllable of her name.

Those rumours persisted, of course. David Grant was known to be single, and early gossip questioning his sexual orientation had long been dispelled throughout the company. The preferred suspicion was that elegant, gamine Marlené was his chatelaine.

There was no hint of any such impropriety from either Mr Grant or Marlené within the office. They both conducted themselves with the ultimate in professional courtesy. He called her Marlené of course, but she only ever referred to him as Mr Grant, meeting his deadlines, arranging his itinerary and keeping his diary with fastidious correctness.

There was little hint when Marlené became ill. She still wore her impeccable, stylish yet feminine business suits, yet she seemed to shrink within them. The soft glow of her cheeks became more obviously artificial, and her eyes dulled though somehow became keener still, as if she longed to not miss a thing.

Mr Grant, who had never been unkind to Marlené ever, had sometimes been sharp or urgent in his directives to her in the course of the business day. It became obvious, however, that he began to still himself and speak with the utmost kindness and respect with every interaction he had with her. Instead of buzzing through and asking if documentation had arrived, he would leave his desk to seek Marlené out in person to obtain the information.

Nobody needed to ask if Marlené was sick, because it was very obvious that she was. Sometimes the girls from the main office would take paperwork or messages through to the executive suite, and find Marlené just staring off into space with a wistful expression. They all reported that she seemed serene and otherwise efficient, but all fretted and mused about what could possibly be wrong with her.

Marlené had never been a smoker, so it wasn’t likely that it was lung cancer. Perhaps it was a different form of cancer – but then, there was no evidence of her having any kind of treatment. Some pondered that perhaps she had developed food allergies, while others suggested a heart condition or a liver disease. Nobody ever asked, though, because Marlené did not invite questions of herself. She engaged with all the staff in a professionally interested way, but that was always about executive care of staff and no reciprocation was required or received.

It was a rare morning when Marlené did not arrive in the office. Nobody could recall a day when she was not ensconced, with the executive coffee pot already percolating, when everyone else arrived to populate the office for the day. That she was not at her desk at 8:29am on a Monday morning was most unsettling.

At 8:40am, the pay mistress phoned Marlené’s home number from her file.

At 8:47am, she phoned Marlené’s mobile phone.

At 8:53am, she phoned David Grant’s mobile phone. He was en route to a business meeting in Hong Kong, so all she could do was leave a message.

At 10:14am, the front desk receptionist received a phone call from an unnamed male, advising that Marlené Cossington would not be at work for the rest of the week.

It was very distressing. There were so many little things around the place that Marlené just took care of, or reminded others to take care of.

The office didn’t seem to run as smoothly. People were fretful.

At 4:23pm, David Grant phoned from Hong Kong to say that he would be back in the office on Wednesday afternoon instead of the following Monday.

Beyond that, there was no information. Oddly, there was little discussion, either. Nobody liked it that Marlené wasn’t around. She was the glue that held the place together; the grease that kept the machinery running efficiently, so to speak.

When Mr Grant stepped out of the office at 3:57pm on Wednesday afternoon, his greying hair was as impeccable as always, his suit was sharp and his demeanour full of his usual authority. It was only the last point that caused concerned eyes to snap to attention and wonder what was going on. His current confidence was such a contrast as to highlight that for the last few months, his deportment had held an uncharacteristic sag.

“I will speak to all staff in the conference room in half an hour,” Mr Grant advised the wide-eyed receptionist. As soon as he strode through the door into the executive wing of the floor, she was on the phone trying to figure out how they would fit so many people into the room all at once.

When he walked into the conference room at 4:28pm, the room was indeed jam-packed. The most junior staff were sitting on the floor right before the podium like kindergarteners. The next rows of the most senior staff in age were on chairs, then some sat on the edges of the tables that lined the back walls, and the young, fit men lined the back wall, standing on the tables.

Mr Grant took in the scene before him. “Thank you all,” he said, and they relaxed at the warmth in his tone. “As you are aware, my trusted assistant, Marlené, has not been at work this week. She has, in fact, been in hospital.”

A gasp arose from the assembled 71 staff.

He held up his hand. “She is well cared for, in good hands, and will return to her usual vigour swiftly now.” Suddenly though, Mr Grant sagged. “She is my wife,” he said. “I will tell you our story.”

It was as if the entire assemblage held its breath.

“Marlené is not sick, as such, she is pregnant.”

Questions were voiced, and Mr Grant did no shy away from answering them.

Initially, difference in their ages (nineteen years) and Marlené’s non-Catholic religion barred their union. Out of respect for his mother, they avoided relationship completely for a number of years. Mr Grant explained that although Marlené had been naïve, she had always been highly principled. They simply worked together cordially, then parted company at the end of the day.

It was during a rail strike and a torrential downpour that Marlené accepted his offer of a ride home. He took her out for dinner on the way, they talked, laughed, and at last admitted the depth of the attraction between them. For three years they conducted an unconsummated courtship, only ever outside working hours, until on a weekend drive in the country, he proposed.

Marlené explained that she knew she would never be able to have children, due to an untreatable medical condition. Mr Grant’s mother, a true aristocratic matriarch, would not accept a daughter-in-law who was not ‘of the faith’. For some time, the situation appeared completely untenable.

Then, over dinner one evening, Marlené offered a solution. ‘I enjoy my independence, as you do,’ she explained. ‘We are legally able to marry. We could do so, and spend the time together that we do now, but with …’ As Mr Grant explained it, her words trailed off, and everyone understood. Thus, their wedding took place and remained a secret to all, save themselves (who never forgot) and the officials (who performed their ceremony then moved on to the next pair, rapidly forgetting all the names along the way).

They had been married for seventeen years already, Mr Grant still officially living in his family’s generational mansion with his mother, and Marlené still in her tiny cottage in a very different part of town. Somehow the arrangement worked.

Neither of them expected to be parents. That was a miracle. It was a huge shock, and it was the shock more than morning sickness that had made Marlené seem so gaunt and frail, especially at first. Then, Mr Grant had begun to insist that this eventuality was just the cathartic jolt they needed to tell his mother about their marriage and their expected baby. They had fought about it again just before his departure for Hong Kong.

“She stopped to speak with a neighbour on her way to the train station on Monday morning,” Mr Grant explained to the office. “She fainted, the ambulance came, and she has been hospitalised since. It was a male nurse who called in to advise of her absence from work.”

Mr Grant seemed much relieved to have told his staff the truth about himself and Marlené, and was flooded with congratulations regarding both his marriage and impending fatherhood. He squared his shoulders again as he entered the lift, ready to face his mother.

Nobody ever knew how that meeting went. Mrs Grant senior died within a week of the news, and in due time Marlené became an elegant mother who appeared in society pages. She did not return to work as her husband’s assistant, but her young male replacement found that despite their diminutive size, hers were indeed very large shoes to fill.

The staff noted the extra jauntiness in Mr Grant’s step thereafter, and if Marlené did visit the office with little Jonathan, he was openly affectionate with them both, in his dignified way.

They all wondered why they’d never guessed. How such love had escaped their prying eyes for so many years. The wiser ones amongst them concluded that it was because they had no right to know. The older, more prideful ones assumed a retrospective knowledge, and the younger, romantic ones all dreamed of one day finding a love like that.

For David, Marlené and little Jonathan Grant, however, they just smiled at each other and enjoyed the next phase of their lives, being together openly and living properly together in their new mid-sized suburban home.

Insurrection November 25, 2009

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Writing prompt: London 1821 … ‘A most heinous crime…’

The morning I remember most from my childhood was absolutely glorious. Healing, in fact. My parents’ fight the night before had been their worst ever that I could recall.

I spent a lot of that beautiful morning out on the sand dunes, feeling the wind whipping through my hair and watching the dark people down by the shoreline. I never spoke with them, although given my childish curiosity, it is a wonder.

“They’re not civilised,” my mother told me. It made me wonder if being ‘civilised’ was a good thing. These people seemed to laugh together and work together in a way I didn’t see often in my own home.

My father was always saying, “Don’t tell your mother,” about things we did together, and my mother was always saying, “Don’t tell your father,” about cheques she had to write or letters I had to post for her. I often sat and watched the darkies, and wondered if there was a lot of ‘don’t telling’ going on between them. I certainly never saw any of the yelling and screaming down there that went on between my parents. I wondered what, really, people did to be considered ‘civilised.’

My grandmother in particular was most insistent on things being ‘civilised’. She used to give me lectures about growing up and choosing a husband from ‘good stock’. “None of that riff-raff!” she used to insist. I remember making her very cranky indeed, asking if we came from ‘good stock’. I’m not sure she ever gave me a direct answer to that.

I remember looking up ‘civilise’ in the dictionary when I was at school. It meant: to bring out of a savage, uneducated, or rude state; make civil; elevate in social and private life; enlighten; refine. The darkies didn’t look savage to me, and although they didn’t go to school, they knew a lot about fishing and about conducting their own lives. I had to concede, though, that they held no social standing, and nobody I knew would have considered them enlightened or refined. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that seeing as they’d been here a lot longer than us, that they could help us learn how this land works, rather than trying to make it ‘just like Mother England’ all the time. Even as a child, I knew that the end of Malabar backing onto La Peruse was a far cry from whatever the seemingly ubiquitous Mother England was.

I must have been about nine, the morning I remember so clearly, coming in from my free time on the dunes with my feet all covered sand and clumps of it through the pockets of my sundress and in my hair. Mum, livid, hosed me down, naked in the back yard that day. Maybe that’s why I remember it so clearly. Or maybe it was because it was the last time we saw my Grandmother.

Mum was so angry with me because I’d been in my best dress when I went wandering on the dunes, and she aimed to catch the next bus over to visit her mother. Great Grandma was to be there for afternoon tea too, so we all had to be freshly pressed and neatly dressed. Except Dad of course – he never came to Grandma’s house with us – he usually went to the pub instead, and yelled a lot once we got home.

I was hastily dried off and reclothed in my shaken-out dress and best sandals, and my wet hair was scraped back into two tight braids down my back. Somehow we caught the bus, but Mum was tight-lipped and tense all the way, and wouldn’t put up with any nonsense from my wiggly younger brothers. They had to sit on their bottoms for the entire trip, rather than being up on their knees looking out the window like they usually did.

Grandma’s house was big and made of large stone blocks. It was beautifully cool in summer, and large open fires kept it friendly and warm in winter. The grounds were large and the gardens beautifully kept, and although I don’t ever remember it being mentioned, I’m sure she must have had a gardener, just as she had a cook and a maid. There were extraordinary views out over Sydney Harbour from her house, too, although I never paid much attention to them as a child – they were just there, and taken just as for granted as was everything else about my life.

George and Frank and I were outside on the verandah, drinking lemonade and eating every last morsel from the tray of delicacies that the maid bought out to us, when the voices inside became raised.

“We live there because it’s all we can afford!” Mum asserted, and I gathered, not for the first time.

“Well, if you’d married Grainger Cartright instead of that riff-raff!” my great-grandmother sniffed indignantly.

The boys left their seats and ran off to play in the garden as Grandma sniffed loudly about the humiliation of her only daughter being married to a grave-digger, but I crept closer to the open French doors and strained my ears to hear every little thing. I’d never known before that my dad was considered ‘riff-raff!’

Your grandparents were convicts, for goodness sake!” my mother was saying, and I snapped myself out of momentary consternation about my riff-raff paternity to pay closer heed again. That’s what the answer to her secretly sent letter said.

Mum must have been addressing Great Grandma, because it was she who cried out, “They were not!” in utter outrage.

“I did some checking,” my mother said in a voice that was even and definite, not full of the hurt and despair that usually accompanied such arguments in this house. “Your grandfather came out on a convict ship called the Shipley. It left London in 1821.” She considered that information to be money well spent, but Dad was furious – hence all the previous night’s yelling.

“He was crew on that ship!” Great Grandma retorted, as if anything else was completely out of the question.

“I checked that too,” my mother advised. “His crime was insurrection.”

I had no idea what insurrection was, but by the fury provoked in my grandmother and great grandmother, I knew it was considered a most heinous crime indeed.

Not long after that, my mother came to the door and called out into the garden for us to come quickly as we had to leave. Either she didn’t see me, crouching at the doorway, or she chose to ignore me. The boys and I met her at the front door pretty quickly – she’d used a tone we all knew wasn’t worth messing with.

We had to wait ages for the bus to take us home again, and almost nothing was said for the entire journey. We only got seats for the last few stops, and Mum didn’t even tell George off when he climbed up onto a seat in order to pull the cord so the bus would stop at our stop.

Dad wasn’t even drunk when we arrived home. Instead, he greeted us at the front door, and just touched the tops of the boys’ heads and my shoulder as we walked past him, but keeping his eyes locked on Mum’s face. I could feel instantly that the intensity in him was entirely different in nature to anything I knew.

“It didn’t go well, hey love?” he said gently. Dad had never spoken ‘gently’ to Mum in all my living memory.

I turned in the front hallway and saw Mum shake her head. I saw the tears in her eyes too, as she let Dad draw her into his arms. It was a new tenderness between them, and it made the boys and me look at each other in almost horror – we had no idea what it meant, or whether it was good or bad.

“Pop the kettle on, will you love?” Dad said to me over his shoulder. He led mum through to the kitchen and sat her down at the table, and all three of us kids gathered around too – we’d never seen either of them like this.

“I just thought that knowing that you came from good stock, but we came from convict stock way back when … that it might help them … accept you!” Mum wailed as I made a big pot of tea and set out cups for all of us. Frank and George and I weren’t usually allowed to drink tea, but I made ours very milky that evening, and neither of our parents stopped us. It felt like a real communion – a real bonding time – as I remember it.

Dad shook his head sadly. “It’s time to accept it, Esther,” he told Mum firmly. “You can’t be working class, and I can’t be upper class. I married up, and you married down. It’s just a fact of life, love. If we really believe that we’re right together, then we’ve got to make our own class.”

I still remember Mum’s face, tear-stained and lipstick-smeared as it was from being buried in Dad’s shirt, as she looked Dad in the eyes, strong and steady. “I married you because I loved you, Sam. We’ve been through some awful trials, mostly at our own hands, but you’re still the same man underneath it all, and I still love you.”

Dad didn’t miss a beat. “I still love you too, Essie,” he said, his voice all choked and husky, which I’d never seen in my life before.

“Dad,” asked George, bold as brass, “are you riff-raff?”

Frank and I instinctively cringed, and Dad noticed it as he turned to answer, dismay sweeping his face. Maybe he’d never realised before that we were often terrified of his drunken rages.

Mum was already decrying George’s words, but Dad held up his hand to make her stop. He answered George calmly, explaining why Grandma thought he wasn’t good enough for Mum, and promising he would never let her opinion of him affect how he treated us ever again.

I’m not sure I believed him at the time, but soon afterwards he got a job on the railways, and we moved out to a little siding called Minnamooka. The boys and I did School of the Air, and Dad and Mum danced around the kitchen after dinner at night, and taught us how to waltz and sing at the tops of our lungs.

I never once heard, “Don’t tell,” from either of my parents again. Never again did Dad and I go to steal fruit off our neighbours’ trees, or wood from their woodpiles. I never had to keep the writing of a cheque or the posting of a letter secret ever again, either.

It became my own opinion that Mum invested very wisely in obtaining that scurrilous information about her ancestor. Only when Grandma died though, leaving all of her estate to a charity, did we venture back to the city or to her house.

Dad drove us all in the family car, and together we walked all over the estate when it was opened for public inspection, prior to auction. Back in the car and driving to our lodgings for the night, Dad reached across the wide bench seat of the old car and pinched Mum’s knee, making her jump, then giggle. “What’s got you, love?”

Mum had been looking smug. “Oh, I was just thinking about Great-great-great-great Grandpa Smith,” she said. “Perhaps a few of those insurrection genes passed down through the line to me!” She didn’t sound in the least bit dismayed about it, either.

The boys and I were mostly all past our teens by then, and within the next two years we’d all be married. I piped up from in between my brothers in the back seat. “I heard you tell Grandma that’s was the crime he was transported for,” I admitted. “I thought insurrection must be just the most heinous crime imaginable.”

Dad laughed. “Oh, apparently not,” he chortled. “Wouldn’t trade it for mindless compliance in our life, not for all the money that estate back there will haul in at auction! That charity can keep the lot of it.”

Mum smiled sideways at him. “So, God bless the departure of the good ship Shipley from London in 1821 with Edwin Horatio Smith on board.”

He chuckled again. “And may the crime of insurrection always be alive and well in our family’s genes.”

“Along with hard work and decency,” Mum amended, ever the moderator of all things appropriate in the family. “And only ever for a good cause, of course!”

I just remember that as we drove through the city traffic, we were all smiling broadly, happy with how things had turned out after all.

The boys don’t remember a thing from the house at Malabar, but for me, I’ve only got to close my eyes and it’s all right there. That one day that I remember so well, to my mind, was the day we became civilised. We might never have been civilised enough for Grandma, but in fact, we did just fine.

Resources

  1. Convict Ships to NSW 1801-1849 http://members.iinet.net.au/~perthdps/convicts/shipNSW2.html

Rednecks November 20, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt (came late in the week from one of my sisters, so I just got to it when I could): Choose one of the following and go for it:  Can you imagine all those red necks? / Who’s the un-named 4th here, I wonder?  / Too easy to gloss over.

 

“I don’t want to go-o-o-o-o!” the little girl wailed tearfully, as her mother dragged her through the supermarket car park. Every single thing about the child was reluctant, and except for the unmistakable likeness between them, I’d have wondered if the woman was abducting the child.

The back of my car was groaning with groceries, and I lifted the last laden carry-bag out of the trolley and stowed it safely, just as they neared where I was parked.

“I don’t want to g-o-o-o-o-o!” the little girl wailed again, tugging uselessly on her mother’s hand, trying to break free.

By the time I’d stowed my trolley in the return rack and was almost back to my car, a full-scale tantrum was in place, right behind my vehicle. The mother, looking more harried and frazzled by the minute, was trying to lift the child into her arms, but there clearly wasn’t a co-operative bone in the girl’s body, and she was alternating between vigorous kicks of objection and limp, slippery resistance.

“Goodness me!” I exclaimed heartily as I drew near, aiming my tone somewhere between intrusive for the little girl and sympathetic for the poor mother. “What’s going on here? Don’t want to go visit Granny, perhaps?” I suggested to the mother.

When my eyes had first been drawn to the tantrum, the mother had looked young and pretty, in slender jeans and a patterned tank top, with her blonded hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. Now, strands of hair clotted against her sweat-damp skin, and her carefully applied make-up looked like it was melting in the sun.

“Oh, is this your car?” the young woman apologised, seeing my car keys in my hand. “Come on Becky honey, we have to get out  of the lady’s way.” Her tone was weary and defeated, poor thing.

Becky was clearly paying attention to my presence, but she was still making one heck of a racket. I aimed my next words at her.

“Becky, does Mummy even know what the problem is here?” I enquired, using my best former school-marm tone of authority – the one that’s designed to communicate: stop this nonsense and talk to me properly, young lady!

Mummy answered for Becky. “We’re going to the rodeo,” she sighed. “Becky was fine with it until the bloke in the supermarket called them a bunch of rednecks and told her they were cruel to animals. Now she doesn’t want to go.”

“Obviously!” I said, somewhat drily. “Becky, I need you to stop this performance and listen to me,” I said sharply, hoping what I wanted to do was okay with her mother. Mum didn’t object, so I could only assume that it was.

Becky sat around with her legs crossed, after a moment or two, and looked up at me, like a sullen child in a kindergarten class. My guess was that she was a bit older than that, but she clearly recognised the tone of voice.

I opened the tailgate of my station wagon, and patted it, for Becky to sit up on it, closer to eye level, just so that I wasn’t too imposing. Her mum helped her up, and continued to hold her hand while I formulated my words. I ferreted around in box and found some apples, gave one a rub on my shirtfront, and offered it to her. She munched into it happily enough.

“Do you know,” I began, “I’m going out to the rodeo myself!”

“You are?” Becky looked me up and down dubiously. I don’t suppose I fitted the image of the average person attending a rodeo: ironed, good quality slacks, teamed with a light knitted cotton top, with pearls at my neck and good quality leather boots on my feet.

“Yes,” I replied firmly. “My son rides in rodeos, and this is his home show.” I glanced up at the mother. “I help run one of the food stalls out there, just when he’s in town.”

“Oh, Becky’s dad used to ride!” her mother said, a little sadly, I thought.

“But he’s dead,” Becky said flatly, more as a statement of fact than an emotional recollection of truth.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I aimed at the mother, hoping I hadn’t brought up anything awkward.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “It wasn’t anything to do with rodeos. He got in a fight in a pub and got hit the wrong way. It was back when I was pregnant with Becky, so she doesn’t even remember him.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again, gently this time, and direct to the young woman who suddenly appeared so vulnerable.

To ease the awkwardness of the moment, I turned my attention back to Becky. “Do you know, Becky, that my son tells me that some horses just love to kick? Some horses are really wonderful at jumping, and others are incredible runners, but others are truly just amazing at bucking, and those are the horses that are chosen to be used at rodeos. And when they’re not in the arena, they’re really treated very well indeed. These days there are all sorts of regulations about how animals have to be treated, and they have inspectors who come to every rodeo, just to make sure that the animals are being treated properly.”

Becky was clearly disbelieving, but she chewed on her apple and nodded sagely. “But why do all the men have red necks?” she asked, as if that was the really troublesome question.

Despite myself, I laughed. “Probably because they’re all silly and butch and don’t like to put sunscreen on at all, let alone on their necks!” I exclaimed, thinking of my own tough-nut son and all the lectures I’d given him about sunscreen over the years.

“So is your son a redneck?” Becky wanted to know. I could tell by the change in her tone, and the cessation of her sniffing, that she was wondering about changing her mind about aborting their plans for the day.

Her mum seemed to seize on the idea, and laughed aloud. “Oh Becky! Can you imagine all those red necks? And all because they’re too butch to wear sunscreen!”

Becky eyed her suspiciously, then turned back to me, waiting for the answer to her question.

I was laughing, too. “When Adam forgets his sunscreen, yes!” I told her. “But he’s not a real redneck. He was educated at a private school and played piano and sang in a boys choir until he was a teenager. Then he learned to ride horses and did proper dressage, and at one stage we even thought he’d go to the Olympics.”

On the other side of my car’s tailgate, Becky’s mum gave a disbelieving little chortle. “So how did he get from gymkhanas to riding at rodeos?”

With a shrug and a resigned smile I told her, “We sent him off to my brother-in-law’s property one summer to get a taste of country life, and he helped them break in a bunch of new horses. He did jackerooing for years when he left high school, and somehow ended up riding in rodeos. Not what his father and I would have chosen for him, but he’s very happy, so what more can we ask?”

We chatted a little longer, and finally I realised that I’d be very late helping get everything ready if I didn’t get a move on. Becky seemed happy to attend the rodeo again, and I told her mother where to find our stall if she wanted some healthy food for them during the day.

They did come to visit me to buy some lunch, and Becky seemed to be having a whale of a time. I saw my large, sweaty son soon after that, too – his neck predictably red.

“Do me a favour,” I said, pushing him away from his sweat-sticky bear hug and looking up into his laughing blue eyes. “See that young blonde woman over there with the little girl?”

His eyes followed the direction I pointed in. “Whew! Too right!” he breathed. It hadn’t occurred to me before that jBecky’s mum would be considered pretty hot stuff by the likes of my son.

“Go over and tell them you’re my son,” I suggested, staying focused on my own intentions, “and show your bright red neck to the little girl. Her name’s Becky.”

He didn’t waste any time complying, and I continued to serve hungry, thirsty customers while I kept an eye on my son and his introductions just a little way away. He pointed in my direction soon after his arrival at the table where Becky and her mum were sitting, so I waved when they looked, but then they all seemed so enthralled with each other for the next hour after that, that I doubt they remembered I was there.

When I saw Adam stand to leave, at the call over the tannoy for the next round of riders, Becky’s mum stood too, hastily scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to my son. Then he bowed with comical panache and proffered his hand to take Becky’s which he promptly turned and kissed. It was that gesture that reminded me, he’d always said he’d have a ready-made family, or none at all.

I felt quietly pleased with how the day had unfolded, I have to say. Having a ‘redneck’ for a son might not turn out to be the void-of-grandchildren wasteland I’d long feared, after all.

Endurance November 16, 2009

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I was a bit stumped for a writing prompt this week – the one in my book didn’t inspire me, and both my sisters seem to have lost a little enthusiasm of late, with no prompts forthcoming from them.

My solution was to log onto Facebook and ask my friends for suggestions. Shari, Lindy, Heather and Isaac, God bless them, came up with the following for me to see what I could do with: Ocean, Grass, Floriade, Swings and Picnic? lol; Endless expanses of wonder… ; What is the exercise?; Toyota?; A frog; Me? (Isaac); Douglas Adams

HELP!!!

 

I woke up with a stiff back to the sound of a kookaburra laughing it’s head off out there in the bush somewhere. Clearly not very far away. Certainly not far enough, as far as I was concerned. But that’d be right – even a bird that didn’t know me or care about me was having a shot at my misery.

Oh Lord! I wonder why the bunk beds in these wretched conference facilities are designed to make you grateful you’re not a prisoner of war somewhere. Between the snoring of my room mates, the thin-ness of the blankets and the unyielding stiffness of the mattress, I momentarily wondered if the Geneva Convention should be informed. Did they still exist? Ah, they wouldn’t care anyway. No more than that wretched kookaburra did.

Breakfast, predictably, was stodgy. Porridge with golden syrup or brown sugar and full cream milk, greasy eggs and bacon, and only butter available for the toast. Ugh.

I should have been more thankful for it, I suppose, given that our early-morning team-building exercise was a five kilometre bushwalk over a horrible track. I couldn’t help thinking ‘Kokoda,’ even though I know that would have to be worse – that track kills people, and no matter how out of sorts I was, I did know that the happy little jaunt I was forced to go on just after first light this morning wasn’t going to do that. I’m just not much on all this heartiness. Hearty food, hearty exercises, hearty lectures … Lord, what I wouldn’t give to be back at my desk just getting on with my job, sipping on a skinny latte from the coffee shop downstairs and looking out the window over the ocean at Bondi to stop me feeling stressed if I needed it.

“Doesn’t this place just make all your muscles go ‘Ahhh?’” sighed dreamy Delana from Accounts.

Isaac from Purchasing looked at her cynically. “More like ‘Aaarrrggghhhh!’” he grunted with dramatic wide eyes and a comically tortured facial expression.

That was this morning, and since then we’ve endured a lot.

First up was a session about the future of the company (it has one), followed by a stodgy morning tea of overly-strong tea or bitter instant coffee, accompanied by endless fat-laden sugary cakes and sweets. The only fruit they had was either not ripe yet, or blemished and bruised beyond redemption. Yuck. After that was another session, teaching us all how to be sweet and smile at each other while we castigate each other for our inefficiencies. Oh, that’s right, we’re supposed to ‘encourage higher quality efficiency’ from one another. Uh-huh.

Lunch was an array of sandwiches, thankfully on fresh bread, but with fillings such as ham sliced with all the fat left on it, or eggs curried with too much mayonnaise and cheap curry powder. By then I was beginning to think I really would die. But then, I do every year at these wretched things. Annoyingly, I survive. Or at least I have so far.

For free time after lunch, I ran away from everybody I knew – not literally, though. That would have hurt after all the physical torture they’ve put us through since we arrived last night. Across the grass and through the trees I went, and down to a really pretty fallen tree by the little creek that I’d spied on our morning walk. I got myself set up there with my book, a freshly opened bottled water, and a nice crisp apple that I’d had the foresight to bring with me.

That part of the time, at least, was refreshing. There was even a frog or a cricket or something nearby, and it seemed to have the knack of croaking just when I got to some interesting part of the story. Douglas Adams books always make me laugh anyway, but I nearly fell off my perch (the log I was sitting on) when, just after I’d read Slartibartfast’s words, ‘Doing the coastlines was always my favourite. Used to have endless fun doing all the fiddly bits and fjords,’ my companion-frog croaked loudly. It made me laugh out loud, because it made me re-read what I’d just read a moment earlier, and wonder if that’s how God felt when he created the Earth. It was like God himself had said “Amen” to Slarti’s words. I wondered if God was ever astounded at all the endless expanses of wonder that He created. Did He ever sit back and go, “Yay Me! Hey angels, come and check this out!” I wonder.

Annoyingly, I heard somebody calling my name. Glancing at my watch, it was obvious that I’d already missed the predictably indigestible afternoon tea, and my lack of presence at the afternoon’s boring session had been noticed. I showed myself to Delana, waving so she’d know I was on my way, and just as I was heading back up towards the grassy area, a message beeped on my phone. I read it while I walked.

Mum. J & I kids taking 2 Floriade 2moz. Cum  down after conf so we can c yr fancy new Toyota. Kids want swings & picnic 4 tea: meet lakeside 6pm. P, T, K & N cumn 2.

I was always amazed that my spelling-fanatic mother could bear to use text-talk. I knew she was economising so that everything she wanted to say would fit into just one message, but I was still stunned.

But! Mum and my sister Janelle were planning to take Janelle and Pete’s kids to Floriade tomorrow (that’s Canberra’s annual bulb show), then have a picnic by the swings at the lake for dinner. Their friends Ken and Nell were coming too, as was Pete’s mate Tom!

Suddenly, my world was a happier place! Perhaps I wouldn’t die after all.

Time with my nieces and nephews is always fun, but Tom, who’d been partnered with me at Pete and Janelle’s wedding about a decade ago, was coming to yet another family do! I was only fifteen when Janelle got married, but it had been obvious to everyone that I’d had a huge crush on Tom, who was finished uni and working in IT or something. Tom and I had managed to avoid each other completely from the wedding until a few months ago – and the avoidance was mutual, because I’d nearly died of embarrassment when I realised that everyone knew about my crush including the victim of it. Since last Christmas though, Tom and I had bumped into each other every time I visited my family in Canberra. And he doesn’t seem even the least bit inclined to run away any more.

Wanting to see the new car indeed! Huh! I quickly texted Mum, saying that I’d try to make it (knowing very well that I wouldn’t miss it for anything!), and hurried into the conference session.

“Okay, so what’s the exercise?” I hissed, sliding into a seat beside Meriden and taking in the scene before me. A dozen staff members were crawling over the floor, retrieving coloured lengths of metal. It certainly looked odd to me!

“It’s a team-building exercise,” Meriden whispered back. “I think the bosses are trying to figure out who’s a leader and who’s a follower. They actually have to figure out how to build a pyramid out of all that lot.”

I groaned. Didn’t we do this every year? Same ruse, different exercise? Oh well, with the joy now set before me, I figured I could endure this round of torture after all.

The MiNiBaBug November 9, 2009

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Writing prompt: “This is what I do at 2:30 in the morning when I can’t sleep.”

 

Our house is an odd shape, I suppose, but it never occurred to me before that it was quite like the house I grew up in. The place that Greg and I bought as newlyweds is an inner city house on a long, narrow block, whereas the place I lived in growing up was a massive block of land on the outskirts of a country town.

Our place is typical of worker’s cottages of the era, and typical of the renovations that were done a few years ago. You walk in the front door, past a bedroom on either side of the long hallway, then past another bedroom on one side, and a bathroom on the other, behind which is the ensuite for the master bedroom. The third bedroom was probably the lounge room when the place was first built. Then you walk into a big lounge room that’s the full width of the house, and through that into an expansive family area with a laundry and galley kitchen down one side. The back wall of that is concertina-style glass doors, opening out fully onto a deck and entertainment area that in the early days housed a kiddy swing off one of the rafters, and a clamshell sand-pit that never seemed to successfully retain its load.

The place we grew up in had the front door opening up into a long wide hallway, too, past rows of bedrooms on either side, then into a lounge room on one side and a dining room on the other, jutting out a bit both sides so that extra stained-glass windows caught extra light. The kitchen and bathroom were just tacked on at the back of the old house.

That place was an odd cross-shape from the top of the old gum tree, and although when we bought it I thought this place was just a long narrow box, it too is an odd cross-shape from above. I don’t need to be up high anywhere to see that, I just know it.

When I was a kid, Mum always kept the bickie tins full. We’d catch the bus into school from the front gate of a morning, and come home to either chilled home-made lemonade in summer, or steaming mugs of sweetened cocoa in winter. Alan and Deirdre and I would always consume at least half a tin of biscuits between us before Mum popped the lid back on and slid the tin back onto the top of the fridge where all those tins lived. She’d then bustle us along to get changed and hurry outside to play, so that we were ready to settle down and do homework by the time Dad was home and she was cooking dinner.

I was a teenager before I realised that Mum worked, just like Dad did, and that she didn’t have time to bake during the daytime. “So when do you make all the bickies, Mum?” I remember asking.

“Oh, while you lot are all asleep,” she said dismissively.

By then, none of us were in bed before midnight, by which time Mum and Dad had both been asleep for a couple of hours, so that didn’t make sense to me.

“Oh, I always did shift-work when I was first nursing,” Mum said, addressing my unspoken consternation. “I think it ruined my sleep patterns. For years, I’ve woken fully up, bright and sparkling, sometime after midnight, and I used to always be really frustrated that I couldn’t get back to sleep. When you kids started coming home from school ravenous, I realised I could put the time to good use with baking. So since then, this is what I do at 2:30 in the morning when I can’t sleep. I get up and bake, and then, for some reason, I can go back to bed and sleep like a baby.”

I wondered if Mum was pregnant when she was first bothered by the sleeplessness.

Vaughn, our first son, was due to be born a week or so hence when I started thinking about all this – I was on maternity leave from my own nursing job again. Brittany and Annabelle were asleep down the hall, and of course Greg was snoring loudly beside me. I wanted to blame him for my sleeplessness, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that baking a batch of biscuits might be just what the doctor ordered in terms of sleep therapy.

As it turned out, I loved it. I was baking, which I’d always loved, I had time to think my own thoughts and be in my own kitchen without anybody else being under foot, and Greg and the girls certainly enjoyed my efforts.

Vaughn, as he grew, could eat a batch of biscuits almost entirely unaided, and I started having to do what my mum had done: putting the lid back on the tin as soon as the lemonade or hot chocolates were finished, and shooing the kids off to play before it was time to do homework.

It was never my intention to have a home for our children that was so like the one I grew up in. It’s just happened that way. The funny thing is, I think it took Greg about a decade to figure out how the bickie tins stay magically full all the time. He’s never objected, though, and the kids just think I’m strange. They’ll get over it, though. Who knows? One day the Middle of the Night Baking Bug might just bite them, too.