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Casting the Spell November 2, 2009

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Writing prompt: Write about casting a spell.

 

Nanny hadn’t been retired very long when I went to live with her. To be honest, I don’t really think she wanted to resume parenting at the age of 61, but both my parents were dead, and the alternative, as far as Child Services were concerned, was a family on my mum’s side of the family who lived up at Nyngan on a property, and Nanny wasn’t at all sure what they grew there. All she really wanted to do was play in her garden and grow proper plants, but as she always told me, “blood is thicker than water.”

I’m told that I was with a foster family for a couple of weeks, but I don’t remember much about that. I just remember walking off a plane holding the hand of a big woman who smelled of stale cigarettes, and into a large echo-y room that was the lounge area of our local airport. It’s long been refurbished, but the way I remember it, it was huge and terrifying.

The big woman handed me over to a kinder looking woman with grubby jeans and paint splattered shoes who smelled of freshly turned earth and gardenias, and I drove home with her to a weatherboard cottage with a brilliantly blooming garden. It was spring in the garden, and I moved from a season of winter loneliness in my heart, to one of life and vitality, freshness and sunshine.

Nanny kept me home with her for those first months. I dug in the garden with her, and climbed trees and had afternoon tea with her friends. She wasn’t much of a cook, she said, but I remember sitting down every afternoon on the verandah with a cup of ‘tea’ and either a biscuit or a piece of slice or cake that Nanny and I had made, and we’d talk. I would tell her about the things I’d seen, and she would tell me … oh, all sorts of things. I heard about my daddy when he was a little boy, or what brave reporters he and my mummy were, going into war-torn countries like they did. I heard about Pappy and how he used to have grand ideas for the garden, and sometimes I heard about when she used to go to work.

Perhaps I was hard to impress as a small child, but it only dawned on me in my mid-teens, that my Nanny had led a very adventurous life. As an archaeologist, she’d spent months in exotic locations at digs, years writing papers and giving lectures, and then, as she began to feel her age and Pappy (who was much older than her) died, she took on lecturing at one of the universities. She had published a number of books, yet somehow managed to remain quite unfazed by her own remarkableness.

What seemed to stump Nanny, however, was my education. When I started at kindergarten, it quickly became clear that school and I did not get on. I was always getting into trouble for fidgeting in class, or ducking outside to run around the building a couple of times, or talking when the teacher was talking or had commanded quiet.

“You could educate him at home, you know,” a friend of Nanny’s told her as they sat on the verandah. They didn’t think I was listening, but I was digging in the dirt, and my ears were burning hot with the tales of woe I was hearing about myself.

“Oh, I doubt they let you do that, these days,” Nanny told Gail. “They’ve got the whole system sorted; there’s no room for renegades.”

“No, my niece is teaching her kids,” Gail told Nanny. “She assures me that the government know about it, and so long as you can show that the child is progressing, it’s all fine.”

I didn’t go to school on Monday, and Nanny spent a lot of time on the phone. The next day, she sat me down at the kitchen table, and started teaching me herself. I’d like to say that it was all fine from then on, but it really wasn’t. Nanny was used to teaching university students, and I didn’t like to sit still. Most days, she’d get fed up and send me outside to play, and then after a while, she’d come out and start digging in the garden too.

One afternoon – I was about eight, I think – I came in from playing with the boys down the road after their school had finished, and Nanny was sitting at the kitchen table playing with an odd, rubbery, spiky ball.

“What’s that?” I asked, sitting down with her. It looked interesting.

“It’s called a koosh ball,” she said, looking me directly in the eyes. “You know James, I think I owe you an apology.”

“You do?” Nanny was very sweet and kind, even though she got mad at me a lot about my education.

She nodded. “I’ve been puzzling about how to help you engage with your studies,” she said. “Today, I remembered a seminar that I went to some years ago.”

“What’s a seminar?”

“It’s like a class for adults,” Nanny said. “You go to learn about things that will help you do your job better. There was a woman speaking at the seminar I went to, who had been an educator for many, many years.”

“Really?” I was puzzled that someone would want to try to educate kids for a very long time. None of the kids I knew liked learning any better than I did.

“Yes, and she was very wise. She talked about how everyone learns differently. People all take in information in their own unique way, but there are three main ways: seeing, hearing and doing.”

I stared at Nanny, who was still playing with that funny ball. “What’s that got to do with the koosh thing?” I asked.

Nanny smiled. “James, I’d like to tell you a story,” she said. “I want you to play with the koosh ball while I talk. You might feel like it’s annoying – if that’s the case, just put it down and keep listening. If you feel like playing with the ball isn’t annoying you or helping you, put it down when you realise that. If playing with the ball helps you listen, keep playing with it.”

“Okay,” I nodded, and took the ball from her when she held it out. It was rubbery and soft, and it felt interesting while she told me about a dig she’d been on in South America, and how she’d felt when she began to unearth metal implements that weren’t made out of any sort of metal that modern-day metallurgists know how to make. When she finished the story, I was still playing with the ball and although I was quite oblivious to it in that moment, the spell was cast.

She began to ask me questions about what she’d just told me, and I kept playing with the ball while we talked. Finally she said, “James, I’m really sorry. You’re what’s known as a kinesthetic learner, and I’ve been trying to make you learn as if you were an auditory or a visual learner.”

“Okay,” I said. I was eight, and I didn’t really know what she was talking about. All I knew was that in the wake of that, I did a lot of origami while Nanny talked, or I built things or drew things, and somewhere along the way, I became curious and began to entirely relish our discoveries and adventures together.

In about half an hour from now, my own son will get home from school, and I am preparing myself to have a conversation with him while he plays with a koosh ball.

After the Christmas holidays, my wife and I will job-share a role as engineers with our employer, and we will also share the home education of our son. It’s funny, but sitting here at our kitchen table, I have no doubt that as we share with Toby and enjoy him, we will capture his imagination, just as my Nanny did with me, helping me to love learning and figure out how to turn my passions into practicalities and still enjoy them.

Nanny died about ten months ago, and one of the things she specifically left me in her will was the koosh ball. She was indeed a remarkable, insightful woman.

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The Fundraiser October 26, 2009

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Writing prompt: “The Fundraiser”

Oh my Lord, you’ve never encountered such a fuss in all your life! I tell you, if anyone was just born to make a fuss it’s Nerida Pickle – I swear, she came out of the womb fussing and she’s never stopped since. Rarely stops to even draw breath, my Jim reckons.

The Fundraiser Fuss started when Pittypat Henry got sick. Well, of course, nobody even knows if Pittypat even has family – as far as any of us know, he came down in a rainshower one year, and has just been in residence ever since. Lovely old bloke, he is. When we were kids, he used to tell us stories about sitting in his cave and listening to the rain pitter-pattering on the rocks outside. He’d get us all up on our feet creating dances and making ‘Pit, pat, splitter, splat’ noises – Lord he was fun! I don’t suppose he was very old then, but to us he seemed to be. I only got to play with him when we were in town on holidays, but I’m sure I loved him every bit as much as the local youngsters did.

Anyway, when the Doc said Pittypat had kidneystones and needed an operation, but that the public list would mean he had to wait months to be out of pain, Nerida and Perdie and I got our heads together. None of us had a real lot of money, but we reckoned if we did some kind of fundraiser, we could come up with the money the old bloke needed in no time.

The arguments! Perdie thought an Art Show would be a good idea, but none of us knew any really famous artists, and of course Nerida didn’t think any of my stuff was worth anything. Nerida had her heart set on some kind of dinner and a show, but even hiring out the club was going to cost a fortune, and then there was the problem of what kind of show we’d put on. Nerida wanted to sing, but Jim told her flat that nobody would pay for that – they’d be more likely to pay her not to sing. Personally, I think that’s when the mucky stuff hit the fan. Nerida and my Jim have always been at logger-heads all the time I’ve known them.

One afternoon, I got talking to Penelope-Ann Cunningham – she’s our mayor, although the locals all call her Pac-man because of her intials and that she’s round and she’s always got her mouth open chewing someone out over something. That afternoon when I was talking to her though, she was really concerned about Pittypat. She’s campaigned in the past to get him evicted from his cave, but everyone loves him so nobody supported her. She must be resigned to his place in the local community, because she suggested that the council could let us have the footie ground for free for an evening, and we could have an auction. People could bring a family picnic, and we could get local businesses to donate items to be auctioned.

Jim loved the idea, so Nerida hated it. Jim started getting donations from people and having it advertised on the local radio, but Nerida had to be seen to be the organiser. I started painting a banner to hang across the main street to advertise it, and Nerida argued about the colours I’d chosen and the dimensions I’d been given by Barry from the Chamber of Commerce. Perdie started organising items into an order of sale for the night, and Nerida came in and rearranged everything.

So we got to the day of the auction, and Pittypat had another episode. Doc had him in hospital and on pain killers before the gates even opened and the local families started streaming in.

Perdie was selling balloons, and Jim had all the goods under lock and key in the back of a big truck supplied by the moving company. Nerida was fussing around, making sure that the p.a. system worked and that her list was in the right order. I spent time cooking sausages and making sangers over with the Rotary barbeque, but when time drew near for the official part of the evening to start, I excused myself and went to make sure that Jim had something to eat before he needed to be lugging things out into clear view so that people could see them at the same level as the stage (which was the flat bed of another truck).

I came around the corner of the moving truck in time to see Jim give Nerida a big shove. Jim’s a gentle giant of a man, so I had no idea why he would need to shove anyone so roughly, but something made me just stay in the shadows for a moment.

“Just leave me alone!” I heard Jim snarl at Nerida.

I glanced at my watch. Uncle Jed, the local hillbilly band, was just finishing up their set, and Nerida would need to get on stage. She was still fussing at Jim, but I drew breath and marched around the side of the truck. “Just about time to get yourself on stage,” I told Nerida cheerfully.

The movie camera of my world zoomed in close on Jim and Nerida – she was trying to kiss him, or something – and then pirouetted around them before panning backwards fast and disappearing off into outer space.

When I opened my eyes again, I was staring at a ceiling. It took me a few moments to realise that I was in hospital. “What am I doing here?” I said aloud, before realising that I was probably alone.

Warmth at my hand stirred, and Jim raised his head from where he’d apparently been sleeping, holding my hand and sitting in the hospital chair at my bedside. “You fainted at the fundraiser,” he said blearily.

“Oh, that’s right,” I agreed, after thinking about it for a moment. “You married the wrong girl.” I’m sure I heard Nerida say that. I was only good for painting things and making them look pretty, not organising anything or even producing babies, she said.

I won’t repeat what Jim said about that, but I wasn’t left in any doubt that he didn’t agree. Reassured, I wanted to know what happened at the fundraiser.

“Perdie texted me. We raised more than enough for Pittypat’s operation.” Jim sounded a little cagey, I thought, even though I wasn’t very with it.

“Did you used to be in love with Nerida, did you?” I knew it, even as the words slipped from my mouth. Why is it that that girl’s presence in every single situation creates fuss?

“When we were teenagers,” Jim admitted, looking embarrassed. “I wasn’t even sixteen when I realised she was a disaster, but she’s never really let it go.”

“How come you never said?”

“Because you were friends with her.”

“We’ve been married for eleven years, Jim,” I said. I wasn’t really angry. Jim’s a big hearted man – even though he didn’t like the girl, he wasn’t about to do her any harm. “Have you noticed that she and I aren’t really friends? Truthfully, I don’t think there’s a human being on the planet that irks me as much as she does.”

Jim looked relieved. He opened his mouth to say something, just as Doc bustled into the room. “Shame you two missed the fun last night,” he grinned. “Anybody give you all the juicy details?”

We looked at each other, then at Doc, blankly.

He grinned broadly. “Oh, by the way, your paintings raised the most, young lady. Anyway, apparently at the end of it all, Nerida looked around and announced that there was nothing else to auction. Then she straightened herself, brushed off her clothes, and said that she, personally, was free to a good home. My goodness, the place was in an uproar!”

Jim burst out laughing, although I felt quite aghast. Talk about a drama queen! “What happened then?” Jim snorted.

Doc shrugged. “Oh, I hear there were a few bids from some of the young men in the crowd. But then Elroy Finch stood up.”

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“He had a thing for her in high school.” Jim said absently. “Left to do university, made a fortune on the stock market, and recently bought that palace out on the point, to ‘retire’ in.”

I blinked at Jim. “At thirty-five?”

Doc and Jim both assured me that that was right. Doc went on: “He stood up, right there in the midst of all his family and the rest of the town, and he called out so everyone heard him, ‘I’ll give you twenty thousand to organise a simple wedding, Nerida. Then you will stop your fussing, settle down and be a good wife to me for the rest of our days.’”

There was a lot of hilarity, and we all agreed that such a scene would have pleased Nerida on a lot of levels, not least her love of the dramatic.

When we calmed down, Jim looked at Doc and asked, “Can we go along the corridor and tell Pittypat? I reckon he’d get a good laugh out of that story.”

“Sure,” Doc nodded. He helped Jim get me out of bed and they both made sure I was steady on my feet. He was making notes on my chart as we got to the doorway, but he thought of something. “Oh!” he exclaimed, making us halt in our tracks. “You might want to tell him that he’s got a new reason to hurry up and get better, too.”

“What’s that?” Jim and I said in unison.

“In a few months time, he’ll have a new adoptive grand-baby to teach rain songs and dances to.” Doc was grinning at us quite stupidly, although it took us a little bit to get his point.

After all these years? Jim and I stared at each other, our eyes suddenly brimming, and our grins more wobbly and stupid than Doc’s.

Oh, but right at the same time as Nerida would be planning her wedding! Oh! Talk about a fuss! I clapped my hand over my mouth and looked up at Jim with wide eyes. “Should we move to Timbuktu?”

Jim still looked quite delerious. “No. We’ll just manage our own fuss, and leave Elroy to manage Nerida’s.”

Oh, but I tell you, the more I think about it, the more I think Timbuktu is a good idea. Can you imagine? Nerida’s bridal shower will have to be more important and bigger and grander than our baby shower. And this baby better not pick a day to be born that’s anywhere near Nerida’s wedding day! Maybe Elroy will pine for the city, or whisk Nerida off on a trip around the world. I wonder if we could organise a fundraiser to encourage that – I’m sure a lot of people would give gladly. Oh, but Elroy’s rich, isn’t he? Maybe we could have a fundraiser to build a high fence around our house to keep Nerida out … or build a fence around that castle of Elroy’s to keep Nerida in.

Or maybe I could stop being silly, and just concentrate of Jim and our baby and Pittypat. Hmm. Now that’s the best idea I’ve had in a long time! I think I’ll go with that.

Canteen Girl October 21, 2009

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The prompt for this week is: “When I opened my mouth to sing …”

 

Nerida snuck in through the back door of the Autech staff canteen, hoping the women cackling over the huge pots of lunchtime slop wouldn’t notice her. She stowed her handbag and cardigan in her locker, tied her apron in place, straightened her hair and make-up, and took a deep breath.

She still felt wildly embarrassed. If she could have skipped this job and gone straight to the lab for her real job, she would have done, but her car needed a new engine, and she needed the extra money.

“Ah! Here she is!” called Doris, who must have spied her as she tried to scuttle through to the front of house to turn on the bain marie. She’d then get the pies into the warmer, and make sure that everything was spick and span before ten floors worth of research scientists, their assistants and all the administrative staff of Autech began filing through for lunch. Nerida didn’t respond to the chorus of greeting that erupted behind her as she scuttled.

Just get on with the job, she told herself sternly. It doesn’t matter. You’re here to do a job. Just suck it up and do what you’re paid to do.

Shirley brought through the first of the trays while Nerida was out in the café area, wiping down tables. Nerida kept her back turned to the kitchen and worked hard to remove a smudge of dried chicken curry that had been crusting up over the entire weekend. When she finally returned to the serving area, the bain marie was laden, and it was only moments before the doors would swing open and the hordes would descend.

For two hours, Nerida worked non-stop. Doris and Carol worked beside her, giving cheek to the customers and answering questions about the food, one or the other of them periodically doing the rounds of the tables and between them keeping the industrial dishwasher in the kitchen humming. Shirley and Nerida took turns on the coffee machine, and Val worked the till.

“There we go, that’s the lot of them,” Doris exclaimed with satisfaction, as the last of the stragglers left their tables and headed back out through the swinging doors to their offices.

“No it’s not,” Shirley said with certainty. She lowered her voice so that only Doris and Val could hear. “He hasn’t been in yet.”

Doris chortled, and Val hurried out the back to make sure that Carol knew. They’d all gathered that Nerida hadn’t spoken to him since Friday night – that much was obvious. Nerida tried to hide at the kitchen sink.

At ten past two, the cafeteria doors swung open again, and a cheery male voice called out, “Am I too late? Will the kindly ladies of the canteen take pity on a starving scientist and feed him, even though he’s running horribly late?”

“No worries, love!” Shirley told him. “I’ve just gotta get this meat out the back and cut up. I’ll just give our Nerida a hoi. She’ll be out to serve you in a tick.”

The handsome face of Anson Blakely beamed at her. They both knew that he wasn’t really there for the food.

“I’m not serving him,” Nerida hissed, scrubbing hard at the baking tray that the roast beef had been baked in.

Shirley tried to insist, but in the end, she had to return to the counter herself. “So, what can I get you, love? Nerida’s up to her elbows in muck out there.”

Anson’s blue eyes twinkled at her. He raised an eyebrow. God, he’s a handsome devil! Shirley thought. Makes me go weak at the knees!

Nerida was scouring away viciously at one particularly stubborn corner of the baking tray when Anson walked through into the kitchen, followed by the wide-eyed and broadly grinning Shirley.

“Y’know,” Anson said, leaning his jeans-clad backside against the stainless steel of the sink and folding his arms across his broad, tee-shirt clad chest before looking sideways at Nerida, “the most embarrassing thing happened to me on Friday night.”

Nerida, startled, leapt back from the sink and tossed water over herself, the wall and the floor, although fortunately it missed Anson completely. She felt the blush that flooded her cheeks with redness even more hotly than the temperature of the water. “It did?” she squeaked, reaching for a teatowel with one hand and a mop with the other. Even the tops of her ears were glowing scarlet – she could feel it.

“Uh-huh,” Anson confirmed, his eyes still twinkling.

Nerida dried herself and started mopping the floor.

Finally, Doris said on Nerida’s behalf, “What happened to you on Friday night, love?”

Anson flashed her an appreciative smile. Gawd, he’s a honey! Doris thought. No wonder the poor girl’s all a-flutter!

“Well, I went to the pub on Friday night,” Anson told the gathered womenfolk, “with a few mates after work. After all, my girlfriend had a full social calendar for the whole weekend, so what’s a bloke to do, right?”

The gathered womenfolk all nodded. Nerida was lovely and lively, and she always had a full calendar. Usually she and Anson did numerous things together, but this had been just one weekend when they had separate things all weekend. The canteen ladies had already discussed how healthy they thought that was.

Assured that everyone understood, Anson continued: “We had a few beers, the steak was good, and then we went through to the karaoke. Some of it was good, some of it was bad – you know how it goes. But when my mates finally convinced me to get up and sing … well, I tried … but I couldn’t do it.”

“Why not, love?” Carol prompted, realising that Nerida’s blush hadn’t subsided and that it was entirely unlikely that the girl would speak at all.

“Well, there was really only one song I wanted to sing … but when I opened my mouth to sing … no words came out. Nothing.”

“Really love?” Doris prompted. She looked around at Shirl and Val and Carol. They all knew that, because they’d been there. “Why was that, d’you think?”

“Well, see …” Anson was now trying to catch Nerida’s eye, but she’d wrung out the mop and was working away at the baking tray in the sink again. She wouldn’t look at him, so he shrugged and answered openly. “I don’t really know why I wanted to sing this particular song, but when I got up, the girl I wanted to sing it to wasn’t there any more. There wasn’t really any point singing it to anybody else.”

“What was the song, love?” Val was the one who couldn’t stand the suspense this time.

“For some reason,” Anson replied, now looking intently at Nerida’s profile, “it was Billy Idol’s White Wedding. I just wanted to tell Nerida that today’s a nice day for a white wedding.”

For some very long seconds, the only sound in the entire kitchen was a single drip from the tap into the murky waters of Nerida’s industry.

“You mean that Friday was,” Nerida said. “This is three days later.” She sounded cross and she sounded like the only reason that she was still there was that her shift wasn’t over yet.

Suddenly Anson seemed to be quite over the game of this little scene in the kitchen. “Come on Nerida,” he said firmly. “Dry your hands and talk to me properly, will you?”

“I don’t want to.”

“But for goodness sake, why?” Anson demanded, sounding more oblivious than annoyed.

Nerida kept working on that baking dish, until she realised that it was as clean as it was going to get, and that Anson wasn’t going away any time soon.

“You weren’t supposed to hear what I sang,” she said, taking a deep breath, drying her hands, and turning to face him squarely.

Anson thought back to Friday night. He and his mates had walked through into the karaoke room when a girl was singing a woeful version of Abba’s Dancing Queen. As they got settled at their corner table, a sweet, pure voice had begun a haunting version of I Honestly Love You. Along with the rest of the room, he’d stood to applaud, only realising then that it was Nerida doing the singing. He hadn’t realised before that the pub where he and his mates had chosen to go was the same one where the Canteen Social Club was having their quarterly get-together.

A broad grin spread across his face. “Hell, Nerida,” he laughed. “We’ve been dating for six months already. We’ve known each other for nearly a decade! Isn’t it about time we got that honest with each other?”

Nerida was blushing again, but at least she was meeting his eyes. “I didn’t want to be the first one to say it though. I wouldn’t have sung that song in a million years if I’d thought you were even in the same suburb!”

Anson was chuckling though, and drawing her into his arms. “And it was the thing that made me realise I want to marry you. I’ve even had time to think about it all weekend, and I still want to.”

So, while the rest of the canteen ladies clapped and cheered, he dropped to his knee and did his very best Impromptu Romantic Proposal.

Six months later, the same canteen ladies lined up down one side of the pathway outside the church, holding pots and pans aloft, forming a guard of honour opposite Anson’s workmates with microscopes and bunsen burners. At the reception, they danced to White Wedding and later, they even sang I Honestly Love You to each other. And this time, they both sang just fine.

Future Unfolding October 18, 2009

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Writing prompt: “Your future starts here.”

 

‘Your future starts here.’

Really?

I toss the scrap of paper from inside the fortune cookie across the table and let my friends get all excited about who got what inside their little, sweet, baked and shaped wafer cookie.

Ah! Fortune cookie never wrong! No idea what that quote is from, but I vaguely remember that it’s famous. Maybe it was a line from a television commercial or something. Who knows?

In this case, however, I seriously believe that the writer of fortune cookie proclamations was having a bad hair day. It’s kind of a stupid statement, isn’t it? Your future starts here.

The future doesn’t have a beginning and an end. It doesn’t stop and start. My future wasn’t on hold when I walked into the Chinese restaurant tonight to have dinner with friends, any more than it leapt off a cliff and committed hari kari when Steve walked out of the church in the middle of our wedding ceremony last year. I nearly performed the ceremonial suicide in reaction to the utter humiliation of what happened, but my future didn’t. It continued to unfold, moment by moment, one day at a time.

In the darkness and despair of the moments, hours, and even months that followed the disappearance of Steve’s cowardly carcass down that beribboned and flower-festooned aisle, I did seriously ponder the failures of my life. I did wonder if the world wouldn’t be better off without me after all. It’s been the message of my life, really. Siblings bemoaning their diminished quality of life because of my existence. Parents sighing their displeasure at the failure of my life to glorify them before their friends. Steve’s flight to freedom no clearer statement of his belief that his life would be richer without me.

It would have been really easy to allow all that rejection to dance itself into a ceremonial frenzy in my head, until it was so powerful that I had no choice but to shed my own blood as the only worthy sacrifice in homage to the truth of it.

But.

Three little letters.

B is for Bullshit.
U is for Utter Drivel.
T is for Total, Absolute, Downright LIE.

Even worse than the fortunes inside Chinese baked goods.

When it comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter who else does or doesn’t value my life. All that matters is that I do.

That horrendous day last year, with the priest hyperventilating with shock, my bridesmaids wailing their dismay on my behalf, my father fuming at all the money he’d wasted, my mother wringing her hands and my siblings telling each other that they’d told each other so, Steve actually did me a huge favour.

I didn’t get to say “I do” to the bloke I’d thought of as the man of my dreams for so long. Instead, I got to face things that I’d believed about myself: that I wasn’t worth anything; that I was a waste of space; that I contributed nothing to anybody’s life of any value … the list went on for quite some time.

Moment by moment, though, the mists cleared, my breathing resumed, and the sun came up. It wasn’t a single moment, it was just an unfolding – like the slow unfurling of a red carpet inviting those who choose Living to live – to take another step, to investigate more broadly, explore deeper, move further away from all that poisons.

So there was no formal “I do” to a man. So what? Instead, there was a smiling acknowledgement, a quiet agreement of “I do” to myself. I do believe that I’m a worthwhile human being. I do believe that I am worth knowing. I do believe that I contribute, both to society and the relationships in my immediate life. Most of all, I do believe that my life is worth living.

“Mandy!” my friend Imogen exclaims. “Was this yours? What do you think? Your future starts here.”

I laugh across the table at her. “Yes, but does it start now, because you read it out loud, or did it start five minutes ago when I read it to myself?”

Imogen’s boyfriend Greg laughs at the consternation that my question provokes, particularly amongst my girlfriends. He leans across the table and says to me, “Would you consider going out with my mate Jack? I reckon you and he would get along like a house on fire.”

It’s funny, but nothing could have surprised me further. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I hear myself saying to Greg. “I’m really just enjoying being me at the moment. I don’t really want to date anyone right now.”

It’s a good feeling, that. Knowing that you like who you are, and that you have every right to step along with your future in the way and at the pace that seems right to you. A very good feeling indeed.

Back in the Day October 12, 2009

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Writing prompt: “In those days …”

 

In those days Gina walked a lot. She walked from home to the bus stop, from the bus to the train, and from the train station up the hill to work. Occasionally she caught the bus for the last leg of the journey – when it was raining or she was just tired – but mostly she walked.

Those were the days when she went home to an empty flat, cooked a small meal just for one, and pondered the inconvenience of having a cat. She never took the plunge and bought one, though. She liked her independence.

Then came the days of being a newlywed, walking the stretches between public transport to and from work, but also walking hand in hand with Paul through parks and on beaches, or even walking holidays through bush land with packs on their backs. They’d discovered so much in those days, as much about each other as about the countryside and the forests and the cities.

Of course, parenthood followed, and walking was replaced by running. Running behind a pram, running behind a slippery toddler, running around after a thousand schedules, running kids to ballet and football and drama classes and shopping trips and interviews and jobs. She certainly hadn’t put on any weight during her full-time mothering years – she’d been too busy!

These days were different, though. They’d moved from their busy city life to ‘retirement’ in the country. Paul had his longed-for back shed, where he could play with model planes, and a paddock where he could fly them. Gina didn’t.

Gina didn’t have her children, or her grandchildren, or her friends, or her committees. She just had Paul. Who was already happily occupied. She had a lovely home, and a very beautiful garden, but still she felt empty.

That’s when the weight began to creep onto her hips, and her thighs, and her arms – oh dear Lord, those arms! Gina heard Oprah call them ‘angel wings’, but to her, they were ‘bat wings’. That’s what she felt like – a cranky, ugly, fat old bat.

Of course she tried to talk to Paul about it, because they’d always talked about everything. It wasn’t very useful, though, because now, without the pressures of work and children and juggling finances, he didn’t have distractions to keep his head out of his models, so that’s what he thought about pretty much all the time.

Gina wailed about the loss of the old days – the children growing up and getting their own lives, the grandchildren not needing her, the committees replacing her easily, the friends who still caught up without her.

Paul did pat her hand and nod sympathetically, but all he said was, “These days are not those days, Gina. These days are these days.”

She watched him head back out to his shed, anger welling inside her so that she didn’t know whether to scream at him or cry. Instead, she had a flashback. She and Paul had had almost the very same discussion when she’d first given up her job towards the end of the first pregnancy. She was bored and lonely then, too, and he’d pointed out that she had to figure out how to make this phase of her life work. Just like he was doing now.

Gina knew she was a go-getter. She always had been. She wasn’t a wallower, and she wouldn’t allow herself to be now, either. It took her a few days, but the next time they drove into town, Gina pinned a brightly coloured notice to the community board outside the supermarket.

GRANNY’S WALKING CLUB  the heading proclaimed. Beneath, Gina elaborated. New to the area granny would love regular guided walking tours with other local grannies, or if you’re like me and you haven’t yet discovered the hidden treasures of this wondrous part of the planet, come with me and let’s do it together. Coffee and cake afterwards, my place, your place, or the café in town. Of course she put her name and phone number too, and by the time she and Paul got home with their groceries, there were already three messages on the answering machine.

Gina’s club became a regular thing, and it wasn’t long before half a dozen grannies or more knew that when Gina was just a young woman she’d loved walking, and those days had sowed the seed for the camaraderie and laughter that they were now starting to share together.

The Grannies Walking Club proved to be the beginnings of some very beautiful friendships indeed. Oh, and fitter grannies too, although their shared enjoyment of cakes didn’t do much do diminish any waistlines.

Call Me Names October 12, 2009

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Writing Prompt: “Names”

 

Names? Oh, I could call you some names, let me tell you! None of them would be polite enough for mixed company, though, so I’ll maintain at least some sense of dignity and restrain myself. You might not think I’m quite up to your standard, but thankfully Your Standard isn’t the one I’m striving for.

Now your attitudes – well for them, I have names. Supercillious. Pompous. Patronising. Condescending. Oh, there are others too, but for the sake of dignity again, I won’t utter those. They would most likely cross the line between reaction against how you are and instead attack who you are. That wouldn’t be right. To my mind, there is a big difference between how a person is and who they are.

Which brings us to the real issue here, doesn’t it? What a person likes. You don’t like that I don’t like the same things you do. If you find a similarity, you praise me because I’m ‘growing’. What you mean is, that I’m becoming more like you. Not something I have as a personal goal, I’m afraid. In all those myriad areas where we are disparate, you condemn me for being wicked and wrong. In fact, I am only different. From you.

To my mind, who a person is speaks of their core being – their beliefs, their morals, their conscience. How a person is, though, is the external working of those internals. Sometimes the conveyance of our inner workings reveals truth and justice, and sometimes it reveals our confusion or presumption about life. What a person likes, however, is just personal taste – nothing more, nothing less. That side of me is no more your business than that side of you is any of mine.

‘Respect.’ Now there’s a word I like. The dictionary defines it as: esteem for, or a sense of, the worth or excellence of a person. That accurately names the attitude I think every human being longs to receive from another. The same attitude that every human kicks against the lack of. We all want our inner worth or excellence to be recognised and esteemed, and we are unfailingly hurt or angry when it is not.

All this pondering has become oppressive to me – moreso, the more I ruminate. Recognising that you really don’t have any respect for what I like or how I am, let alone who I am – well, that’s just made me angry all over again. I don’t want to be angry with you. I have considered you my friend. I have loved you – recognised our differences and rejoiced at the patchwork of diversity that weaves itself together somehow to make life into a rich and beautiful place.

I don’t like the taste of this thing, you know. It’s bitter, and I don’t want that on the inside of me.

There is a Sanctuary – a place I go when I am hurt and despised – and in that place, miracles do happen. They aren’t instant, because there are no quick fixes in life, but they do happen. In this place, this Sanctuary, I can spread my anguish, my disappointment, my devastation out to be examined. As I expose my grief, there is a flood of empathy. I am no longer alone. I am surrounded by love, acceptance and forgiveness that is powerful and real.

When I emerge, nothing is changed between you and me, but my pain has somewhat subsided. Who I am is intact and affirmed. How I am, I’m sure, will continue to bumble along, sometimes wise, sometimes foolish. What I like and what I don’t like will continue to displease many others, probably most of all you. Because I do not aspire to become like you. It wouldn’t be healthy if I did. And thereby hangs a tale.

If the name you ascribe to yourself is ‘Perfect’, then you and I will not stay friends. I am not perfect, and I know that this side of Kingdom Come at least, I won’t be. The name I choose to ascribe to myself is ‘Maturing’. Better today than I was yesterday. More tomorrow than I am today.

A friendship cannot survive if one person assumes superiority over another. The one I call my Friend is one who loves me and is at peace with who I am. Whether that is you or not is a choice only you can make. I will happily wear the name Friend for you, if you can accept me as I am. If you can’t, I will love you still, but only from a distance.

Cha-cha (2) October 3, 2009

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The original writing prompt was: “Write about a time the lights went out.” The story I first wrote utilised baby-talk to tell the story from the perspective of a toddler. Feedback indicated that it was difficult to read because of the language style, so the rewrite attempts to just tell the story in a normal voice. Does it convey that the story is being told by a toddler as well as the first version? Better? Worse?

 

I hear Bonnie yell for Mummy. Daddy groans and gets out of bed grumpily. He lets the chilly air in at me.

I scrabble about crossly, but my eyes stay shut tight. I want to be asleep. It smells musty where my nose is. Like feet. I wiggle up the bed a bit and find the spot that smells like Mummy. Cosy. Soft. Just the right place for sleeping.

“It’s just a black-out, sweetie,” Daddy says. He’s coming closer and Bonnie’s with him, sniffling. I squeeze my eyes tight. I don’t want her. It’s my spot.

“Oh. You too, hey matey?” Daddy’s voice says, then Smelly says something, whining, sleepy-like.

“Alright. Everyone into bed. Just mind Cha-cha – she’s in there somewhere.” Daddy doesn’t want everyone in the bed. Just me.

Someone digs my ribs and I howl. That’s rude. “No Smelly!” I wail.

“It’s Merrill!” he hisses. I know that, but Bonnie liked it when I tried to say ‘It’s Merrill’ that other time and I said ‘Smellel’ instead. She said ‘Smelly’ suits him. He calls me Cha-cha when I dance in my pretty skirt, anyway, and now everyone calls me that. I might say ‘Merrill’ one day. Maybe.

Daddy lights the candles all over the room. It’s pretty. Like when he and Mummy have the door shut but they let me come in because I’m crying. He climbs into the bed and I escape from Smelly to cuddle up in Daddy’s lap. He pulls the doona close all around us, and Bonnie and Smelly and Daddy and me are all snuggled together.

“It’s scary without Mummy,” Bonnie says, and her voice is shaky and scaredy-cat-like.

“Mummy and baby Clio will be home in a couple of days,” Daddy says. He yawns. His chest rumbles when he talks, and I smile and wiggle closer.

I met that Clio baby today. I smiled for the camera, but she yelled. She was very, very loud. I didn’t like her.

Daddy’s rumbly voice starts to tell the story of Terry the Tuffikins Terrier. I cuddle up and practice saying Terry’s name. I still mix up my rrr and my www sounds a bit sometimes. Sometimes my lll sounds, too, but mostly those other ones. Like now.

Bonnie gets cranky. “It’s rrrrrr!” she hisses at me. “Terrrrry!”

“It doesn’t matter, honey,” Daddy shooshes. “She’ll get it eventually. Time to just be still now.”

His rumbly voice rumbles on, and I listen to how Terry learns not to bark at the cat and how they learn to play nicely together. If that Clio baby learns not to yell so much, maybe we could play nice. Maybe.

But for now, it’s just Daddy and Smelly and Bonnie and me, and I’m all cosy, and I don’t mind sleeping with the flickering of the candle-light. Not at all. It smells pretty. Like Mummy.

Cha-Cha September 28, 2009

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I chose this week’s writing exercise: Write about a time the lights went out.

This week, I really wanted the challenge of writing with a ‘voice’ other than my own. I’m not skilled with outlandish characterisations, but after some pondering – and remembering a lot of black-outs from my childhood – I wondered how I’d go writing as if I were a toddler. I actually found it very hard! The trickiest bit was actually not being too consistent – when toddlers are toying with speech, they have their own little nuances, but there are still things they ‘get’ even when they haven’t ‘got’ the whole concept yet.

What do you think? How did I do?

 

I hear Bonnie yell faw Mummy. Daddy does gwoan an’ get out of bed harrumphily. He lets da chilly air in at mee.

I scwabble about cwossly, but my eyes do stay shut tight. I want asleep. Smells musty where my nose do be. Like feet. I wiggoow up da bed a bit an’ finda spot smelling like Mummy. Cosy. Soft. Just da wight place faw sleeping.

“It’s just a black-out, sweetie,” Daddy say. He coming closer; Bonnie sniff’ing. I squeeze my eyes tight. I don’t want her. My spot.

“Oh. You too, hey matey?” Daddy voice, den Smelly does whine, sleepy-like.

“Alright. Everyone into bed. Just mind Cha-cha – she’s in there somewhere.” Daddy not wants evvyone inna bed. Just mee.

Someone does dig my wibs an’ I howl. That’s wude. “No Smelly!” I wail.

“It’s Merrill!” he hisses. I know dat. But Bonnie did like it when I try to say ‘It’s Merrill’ dat udda time an’ I say ‘Smellel.’ She say ‘Smelly’ suit him. He call mee Cha-cha when I dance inna pwetty skirt. Now evvyone call mee dat. I might say ‘Merrill’ one day. May be.

Daddy lighting candoows all over da woom. Pwetty, like when he an’ Mummy havva door shut. He climb inna bed an’ I ’scape Smelly to cuddoow up inna Daddy-lap. He pull doona close all wound us, an’ Bonnie an’ Smelly an’ Daddy an’ mee are all snuggoowd.

“It’s scary without Mummy,” Bonnie say an’ her voice does be all shaky an’ scaredy cat.

“Mummy and baby Clio will be home in a couple of days,” Daddy say. He does yawn. He’s chest does wumble when he talk, an’ I smile an’ wiggoow closer.

I did meet dat Clio baby today. I did smile faw da camwa, but she did yell. She was vewy, vewy loud. I did not like her.

Daddy’s wumbly voice starts to tell da storwy of Tewwy da Tuffikins Tewwia. I cuddoow up an’ pwactice saying Tewwy’s name.

Bonnie gets cwanky. “It’s rrrrrr!” she does hiss at mee. “Terrrrry!”

“It doesn’t matter, honey,” Daddy shooshes. “She’ll get it eventually. Time to just be still now.”

 His wumbly voice does wumble on, an’ I lissen to how Tewwy does lern not to bark at da cat an’ how dey lern to play nice. If dat Clio baby lerns not to yell so much, maybe we could play nice. May be.

 But faw now, it’s just Daddy an’ Smelly an’ Bonnie an’ mee, an’ I’m all cosy, an’ I don’t mind sleeping with da flickawing of da candoow-light. Not at all. It smells pwetty. Like Mummy.

Limited September 26, 2009

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The exercise is: “Write about being limited in some way.”

 

I’ve been thinking lately. Well, truth be told, I’ve been thinking a lot for years. You tend to think a lot when you sit in a rocking chair on your front verandah, day after day, year after year, watching the world go. Watching the grass grow. Watching the neighbourhood brats grow. ‘Silly old bugger,’ they call me, sitting there keeping an eye on them. ‘Silly old bugger’ is what my own kids call me, too. Well, not to my face, but I know it’s what they think.

Think. Oh, that’s right. I’ve been thinking lately.

I’ve always got a pile of books beside my chair, for the hours between when I’ve finished the morning paper and when school’s let out. In one of the books – can’t remember which one – I read a statement. Love limits itself. That’s what’s got me thinking.

Can’t say I’ve ever been fond of limits. Dad gave me a curfew when I started going out with my mates as a teenager. I didn’t like that limit, and I never heeded it unless I was bored and wanted to go home anyway. If I’m honest, I didn’t pay much heed to limits with girls, either. Only stopped if they hit me. I was a good looking young fella though, so I got a way with a lot. I was pretty reckless, I suppose – fast cars, fast women – fast with every damned thing, Dot’s always told me. Scowled at me, more like it. Shrew.

My mum was a shrew, too. Gawd, that woman could shriek! Get that mud of your boots, you little bugger! Wash those filthy hands before you come to my dinner table! Don’t speak to your gran like that! She never just spoke anything, my mum. Everything was in this high-pitched, banshee wail that could travel a hundred miles in one utterance, my dad used to tell me on the quiet.

Dot didn’t start out like that. When we first got married, she used to talk softly – more like Jim’s Nancy. Dunno where she picked it up from, because she never met my mum, but old Dot can shriek like the best of them these days.

Where was I? Oh, that’s right. Where I usually am. Thinking. Love limits itself, but I never did.

No. I never saw why I should, really. It was my right to yell if I was angry or frustrated. It was my right to hit something – or someone if they irked me. It was my right to follow a bit of skirt if it took my fancy. Actually, that might be the one area where I did learn to limit myself, but only after I came home and found that Dot had moved herself and the kids out of the house because I’d done it again.

Jim talked to me a lot about that. He reckoned Dot was right to expect faithfulness from her husband. Geez, that scared me! It was like they, Jim and Nancy and Dot, were forcing me to grow up.

Huh. Not sure I’ve ever thought about it like that before. No more getting drunk all the time. No more knocking her around because she was slow to get up and cook for me at 3am. No more thinking that all of womankind was my own personal playland. Geez that was tough. But, Dot and the kids came back, and they stayed.

She did leave one other time, after all the kids had moved out and I hit the turps again, but by then I felt too old and tired to go chasing, so I promised to be a good boy and she eventually came home again. The kids don’t come often, and when they do, they don’t stay long. But at least Dot’s here to cook and clean and give me a bit of the other.

Huh. So maybe I did limit myself. For Dot. For love of Dot. Geez that’s an awkward thought. When you’ve been married as long as we have, love isn’t really a topic of conversation very often. You talk about the weather, or the kids, or what’s on the telly, or what the neighbours are up to. Love’s more like a dirty word. I think.

Jim and Nancy aren’t like that. They still say ‘I love you’ all the time to each other. They say it to our kids, and they even say it to us, Gawd help us!

Jim. He and I have been best mates since before we started school. We both still live in the houses we were born in. It hasn’t always been an easy friendship, but we’re still mates.

He’s always been very different from me. He was just as much of a wild boy as I was when we were young, but then he went away to do his training to become a cop, and he came back different. My mum said it’d toughen him up and stop him being such a nice, easy-going bloke. It wasn’t like that, though. He came back with the same nature, but there was something respectful about him. Something restrained. Used to annoy the crap out of me!

He wouldn’t get drunk, because that wouldn’t look good for a cop. He wouldn’t sleep around, because he had his eye on Nancy and he wanted to show her that he was a decent bloke. He wouldn’t come to the drag races out on Turvey’s Lane any more, because he wanted to make sure he was around to enjoy his future. Gawd! The names I called that bloke!

The school kids start walking past, and a couple of teenagers stop just outside the old Harrington place and kiss. I guess I was pretty sweet with Dot when I first started chasing her. But that was because I wanted something. Had to marry her to get it though. Talk about paying a high price for something!

Where was I? Silly old bugger, I am! That’s what happens when you get old. Your mind wanders.

Dot brings me out my afternoon tea. Right on time. Trained her well in that regard. Usually I just nod toward the little table on my right, and she waits while I take the papers and books and dump them on the boards of the verandah floor. I grunt when she’s put it down, and she leaves. Today, though, when she puts it down, I muster all my strength and say, “Ta, love.”

When she looks at me, startled, I meet her eyes and I give her a bit of a smile. Gawd, it feels odd! It feels like my heart’s tried to climb out through my throat, then fallen backward in a big quivering heap of jelly. It’s something Jim would do, though. He’d do it to Nancy or Dot or anyone who did something nice for him. I wonder if he feels so wobbly on the inside every time. But Dot isn’t doing something ‘nice’ for me, she’s just doing what she should do for her husband.

Dot scurries inside, and I struggle to remember what I’m thinking about.

Love limits itself. Jim got really good at that, I have to say.

He’s a big bloke, Jim. Tall, broad shouldered, a real super-hero build on him. Big in personality, too. When we were teenagers, he was always the life of the party – rambunctious, inappropriate with his words, loud. As he got older, though, that seemed to settle.

It wasn’t just because of Nancy, either. He told me that. He said, “Some people can’t take me, huge and loud all at the same time. If I settle down a bit, they can get to know me, and they might even get to like me.” I always thought that was stupid. People should like you as you are. I certainly never moderated myself just to con people into liking me! They could take me or leave me!

Huh. For the most part, I guess, they left me. I’m not just a ‘silly old bugger’ around town. I’m a ‘cranky old bugger’ and a ‘menace’ and a whole other string of things. If someone shoves me with their trolley in the shopping centre, I don’t care whether they meant it or not, I turn right around and shove them back, as hard as I can. If someone blows their horn at me in traffic, I’ve been known to get out of the car and bang on their window with my walking stick. I hate it when people impose themselves on me. Jim reckons that it’s just part of life, but I always let people know when they’ve crossed the line. They still do it an awful lot, though.

Jim and Nancy still do it an awful lot, too. You can tell. And by ‘it’, now I’m talking about the other ‘it’. They’ve been married a bit longer than Dot and me – about two years, I think. I remember asking him, when I was thinking of proposing to Dot, what it was like doing it with the same girl all the time. “Wild,” he said, and he looked really embarrassed, which on a big bloke like Jim, looks odd. I couldn’t figure how a sedate girl like Nancy, and a bloke who was on his best behaviour all the time like Jim, could be wild in the bedroom. When I said that, though, he just laughed. “That’s the place to be wild,” he laughed. “I’m not being gentle with Nance as an act, you know. I’m gentle with her because I love her and I respect her. I choose to be that way with her. I’m rewarded with ‘wild’ when it’s just her and me and it’s private. Believe me, it’s worth it.”

Dot and I had been married about a year and a half when our first kid was born. Darren. Little bugger. Ruined my sex life! I remember whinging to Jim about it, and he just looked at me like I was from another planet. He and Nancy had been told they couldn’t have kids. “You’re a selfish, selfish man,” was all he said to me then.

Nancy gave birth to a little boy, oh, it must have been about five years after that. We had Darren and Barry and Susie by then, and you’ve never seen a happier bloke than Jim. He changed nappies and hung out washing, and did a whole pile of stuff for little Adam that I’d never have been caught dead doing for our kids. Big wuss! But … if I dare to be really honest with myself, I’ve never actually seen a happier family than Jim and Nancy and Adam.

Our kids were all surly little blighters. They’d mouth off at you or kick you, and they were always laying into each other. When all six of them were on the warpath, the house was like a warzone. I used to leave a lot in those days, just for some peace and quiet down at the pub. Dot never seemed to understand why I needed it, but it wasn’t like she loved the rabble. She cried a lot. I guess men and women just cope with things in different ways.

Little Adam. Now there was a bonny kid. He had a halo of golden blonde curls, and the biggest grin on his face. He was cheeky and funny, and he was just the light of old Jimmy’s life. One afternoon – he was in kindy or first class, I think – he was walking home from school, and this drunk driver careened off the road and onto the footpath just down the road from Jim and Nancy’s place. Nancy was waiting at the gate for Adam, and she saw him start to run towards her, full of anticipation for the afternoon tea that she always made for him. Then she heard the squeal of tyres – she saw the impact of the bull-bar of the old Valiant ute hitting her angelic little boy and ploughing him sideways through the Vaughn’s front fence and into their fish pond.

If I was Jim, I’d have killed that bloke. The drunk driver. I’d have hunted him down and blown holes through his heart and his brains with my service revolver. It was months after the funeral that I said that to Jim. He was a cop – he could have done it so easily.

Jim looked at me like I was a moron. Me, with my six pain-in-the-butt kids. I still don’t know what kind of reaction I expected from him. Maybe that he’d go off and do it, or maybe that he’d come over all saintly on me and tell me that wasn’t the way.

What he did do was sigh heavily, lean forward and hang his head for awful, long minutes. Finally he looked up and me, and his eyes were red. “You think I haven’t thought of that?” I didn’t answer. “I’ve thought of it, alright,” Jim said flatly. “I’ve seriously thought of dealing with it like my old mate Frank would deal with it.” I felt momentarily proud that he’d contemplate doing something like I would. Then he shook his head. “But all that would do,” he went on, “is give vent to my anger and frustration. There’s nothing good comes from that. I’d then be up on murder charges, and how would that help Nancy? No, Frank. I’ve watched you all our lives, just doing whatever you wanted to do. Nothing could have spoken louder about how not to live a life. Nance and I will hold onto each other, and we’ll come through.”

You know … it’s years since I thought about that conversation. I wasn’t hurt at the time. If anything, I was proud that he’d watched me doing what I wanted to do. Now that I’m really thinking about it though, he certainly wasn’t paying me a compliment! He was actually calling me … for want of a polite term … a loser.

Love limits itself. There it is again. That thought.

Oh, I’ve limited myself alright, but only to get me what I wanted. Jim, on the other hand, has limited himself for the sake of others, and despite all the sadness that he and Nancy have endured, they’re still the happiest people I know. They travel, they have friends all over the world … and they have six kids, six sons-and-daughters in law, and about twenty-five grandchildren who all adore them. Biologically, those kids are Dot’s and mine, but they’re not really ours at all, any more.

I’m not really sure when I noticed it, but some time after Adam was killed, Jim and Nancy started being more involved in our kids’ lives. Our kids would go there for afternoon tea on their way home from school. They started sharing their exciting news with Uncle Jim and Auntie Nance. They’d go there to talk through problems that they had. I didn’t care! At least I didn’t have to sit and listen to them whinge!

Most of the horde of school kids have passed by, now. They’d be home telling their mothers about their days. Well, maybe not. Most mothers these days are out working. They’ll be home watching the telly. I’m actually glad that our kids had Dot to come home to. I’m even glad that they had Jim and Nance. I can see that they’re better for it. They’re all okay, these days, as far as I can tell.

I hang my head, just dropping my chin to my chest. I feel the whiskers of my unshaven face bristling and prickling where chin meets chin and chins meet chest.

Gawd, I’ve been a bastard.

Really, I’ve only ever lived my life for me. Now, I’m a lonely old coot who shares a house with a frightened rabbit of a woman who only speaks when she’s spoken to and does everything she’s told because she’s scared not to. I fought for ‘me’ all the time, and in the grand scheme of things, I’ve got nothing. Jim’s got everything that matters, hasn’t he? He’s got the love of everyone around him, but especially his wife.

Gawd, I’m sorry. I can feel hot tears on my cheeks, but I don’t care enough to brush them away.

The sun is setting when I struggle to my feet. I put my weight on my walking stick and shuffle inside the house. Then I go back and pick up my mug and plate, balancing them carefully in one hand as I walk through to the kitchen.

Dot looks up, and blinks in amazement as I put my used crockery on the bench. I’ve never done that before, and I’m almost surprised to realise that it hasn’t cost me anything.

She’s peeling the spuds for tea, and I shuffle to her, take the peeler from her hands and put it on the bench. She’s frozen, not knowing what I’m likely to do. I put my arms around her. “I’m sorry, love. I’m sorry I’ve been such a bastard. For so long.”

Slowly, her arms come around me. I don’t know whether she can feel my tears through her grey hairs and onto her skull – I just know that I don’t care if she can. It’s not weakness. She’s my wife.

“I love you, Frank,” she ventures at last.

“I love you, too.” I straighten, but still hold her, looking down into her perplexed, wrinkled face. She’s still beautiful, beneath the years of torment I’ve put her through. It must be five decades since I told her that. Maybe when Darren was born.

“I was thinking,” I say. “All that money that I’ve been so … mean about.”

“Yes?” I can hear the fear in her voice, and I don’t want her to be fearful any more. She’s a good woman.

“We should book a holiday. Go and see all the kids. And when we come back, lets look at doing some renovations on the old house here. Maybe then they’ll want to come and visit us.”

Now her tears are hot on my chest, soaking through my vest and my shirt and my singlet, and I’m holding her close, like I don’t ever remember holding her in all our lives before. Now, I’m not doing it because I want sex (although I wouldn’t say no). I’m not doing it because I want her to come home and stop being stupid. I’m doing it because I want her to be happy.

We don’t have a lot of years left, but it would be nice if, when she finally buries me, she’s glad she married me in the first place.

My Fair Lady September 22, 2009

Posted by Anna in Free Range Ideas.
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After completing this week’s writing exercise, I had another idea floating around in my head. I wasn’t going to post it to the blog because it’s so long, but then I kinda wanted some feedback, too. It will make most sense to those who are familiar with the musical “My Fair Lady.”

 

Slouched at the breakfast table, Lizzi hunched more protectively over her bowl of cereal as her brothers and their mate slouched into the room. They’d already been out in the front yard, working on the Monaro’s engine before the summer heat became unbearable for the day.

Paul, the eldest, went to the pantry and started handing out boxes of cereal to his mate Chook, who put them on the table opposite to where Lizzi was huddled. Trent got the bowls and flicked on the kettle, while Bevan, his twin, got the spoons out of the drawer and the milk from the fridge.

“How’s the princess this morning?” Trent enquired with a private grin as one by one the boys got seated at the table and began piling their bowls with muesli, rice bubbles, Weeties and cornflakes.

Lizzi glanced up at him, glowering. “I’m not a princess.”

“You sure looked like one last night,” Bevan pointed out, exchanging a wink with Trent.

She had looked beautiful, heading off to her Year 12 formal with her hair all done and in a dress it had taken her six months to save up for. Coming home, though, easing quietly through the front door after 2am, well after the curfew her father had given her, the four boys had seen for themselves how dishevelled she looked.

“Must’ve got lucky,” Paul had grunted, giving Chook a nudge beside him on the lounge, where they waited for the twins to hand over the game controllers for the Playstation game the four of them were playing.

Lizzi didn’t reply to Bevan’s breakfast comments. She knew very well that anything she said would elicit teasing. They couldn’t help themselves, and she just wasn’t in the mood. Gulping down the last of the milk direct from her bowl, she flung herself away from the table, put her bowl and spoon in the dishwasher, and just about ran out of the room to hide away under the comforting deluge of the shower.

The four older boys all exchanged dramatised glances, arching their eyebrows at each other and widening their eyes, spoons all poised somewhere between bowls and mouths. It was their cue.

“What in all of heaven could’ve prompted her to go?” Paul asked, his tone conveying shocked amazement.

“After such a triumph at the ball!” Bevan confirmed, his own voice full of petulant dismay.

“What could’ve depressed her?” Trent enquired with mock concern.

“What could’ve possessed her?” Chook echoed, understanding that he was required to play along with this, and knowing the musical lyrics as well as Lizzi’s brothers did.

“I cannot understand the wretch at all!” the three Peirce sons chorused in pretend justified indignation.

This kind of scenario had been played out over and over again in the Peirce household since Lizzi was in Year 8 at high school. The twins were in Year 9, and Paul and Chook were in Year 10. Every student was required to try out for a part in the school play that year, and Mrs Peirce had dropped them all off at the auditorium together, for the M to R auditions.

When she got to the Peirce teenagers, Mrs Delahunty took great delight in calling out ‘Eliza Peirce!’, which always made Lizzi cringe. Lizzi just about cried when the teacher insisted on calling her ‘Eliza Dolittle’ and even though she really wanted the lead role, she sang off key because she was so nervous as a result of the teasing.

When she got to Chook, Mrs Delahunty of course refused to use his nickname to demand that Henry Pickering present himself on stage. It was quite lost to her that ‘Chook’ was the right thing to call him – Henry, Hen, Chook – it made perfect sense to all his mates.

“What a shame your surname isn’t Higgins, Mr Pickering!” Mrs Delahunty smiled ironically. She suggested that she would pair him with Lizzi as Eliza Dolittle just because of their names, and that was enough for Chook to muff his lines completely and utterly disqualify himself for the lead or any other role.

It was news to everyone in the room that Henry and Lizzi shared an amusing array of names from the characters of My Fair Lady, the play which would be performed that your. It was delightful fodder for many.

 

Lizzi returned home from her first year at university a much more confident young woman than she’d left. She had learned a number of skills useful in the fighting off of unwanted male attention, and she rather hoped she would also be more adept at handling her brothers. In her whole year away, she hadn’t walked home once, and although she had a reputation as a total prude, she preferred that to the options elicited by certain other behaviours.

Trent and Bevan were both doing apprenticeships in their home town – one as a builder and the other as a butcher. Paul was doing a Business-Law degree at the same university where Chook was doing Civil and Mining Engineering, and Lizzi had made sure she wasn’t even in the same city as them. The two of them shared a flat, and Lizzi had declined every invitation to party with them, no matter the excuse.

They were all home for Christmas, though, so she took a deep breath, put on a big smile, and fronted up to the breakfast table on her first morning home.

Her father laid a big plate of bacon and eggs down in front of her, and her mother poured her a coffee. Both her parents were beaming, having all their flock home under their roof again for Christmas. Even though Chook’s parents lived just down the road, Lizzi wasn’t surprised that he was at the table too. He was like one of theirs in so many ways.

Her parents asked Paul and Chook about their studies and their sporting activities.

They asked the twins about their social lives, even though both boys still lived at home.

“Have you met any nice young men?” Lizzi’s mother finally asked her.

Lizzi coloured. She hadn’t expected her mother’s preoccupation with seeing her married off young to carry on after she’d got all high distinctions in every subject of her education degree.

“I’ve met a lot of nice young men,” she answered tartly. “But none of them special enough to take precedence over my studies.”

“Well, that’s very commendable,” her father said, patting her hand comfortingly.

Lizzi watched the flow of conversation around the table, with all the major attention focused on the boys. Even Chook got more attention than she did. He caught her eye at one point, and winked at her. Sometimes she wondered if he knew how overlooked and unnecessary she felt.

“So what are you up to today, Busy Lizzi?” Paul asked as she closed her knife and fork on her empty plate, placed her empty mug on top and got up to put them in the dishwasher. “Lots of shopping with the girlies?”

Aiming a ground-disintegrating glare at her oldest brother, she exited the room with as much dignity as she could hold together.

Behind her, as she headed down the hallway to her bedroom, she heard the predictable chant start up.

“Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that!” Paul exclaimed in overly-theatrical dismay.

“Their heads are full of cotton, hay and rags!” Bevan agreed vehemently.

“They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags!” Trent confirmed with relish. He always loved getting all the words right in that line, and in the right order.

The last thing Lizzi heard before she closed her bedroom door, was her father laughingly demanding “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” She hated that their father had joined her brothers in their lyrical taunting of her.

She didn’t hear Chook say, without any characterisation at all, “Why the hell would you want them to be?”

The tears were shed behind her closed bedroom door, and Lizzi’s make-up was immaculate by the time she eased her way out the front door to catch the bus into town to do her Christmas shopping alone.

 

Lizzi dressed with care in her hotel room. There was nothing in her that wanted to attend Paul and Henry’s graduation ceremony, but her mother insisted that she simply had to attend. “I know they tease you unmercifully, darling,” she soothed, “but they do both love you, and they’d be awfully hurt if you weren’t there.”

The twins both whistled at her when she joined the family downstairs in the hotel lobby.

“Wow, she doesn’t much look like a country girl any more,” Trent commented to Bevan.

“So have you met any nice young men?” their mother enquired of Lizzi as their father negotiated the old family car through the city traffic.

“Actually,” Lizzi said carefully, wondering what can of worms she was about to open up, “I have been seeing someone.”

Either side of her in the back seat of the car, the twins leaned forward and looked at her with interest.

“Really!” the twins said, in perfect union with both their parents.

“What’s his name?” Trent wanted to know.

“Fred,” Lizzi said quietly, examining the paint job on her fingernails nervously.

The whole car went silent. She glanced up in time to see Trent and Bevan squinting eyes at each other. “Not sure,” Bevan said. “We’ll have to do some research.”

“I wish you lot would get over your obsession with that stupid musical,” she mumbled, her mouth tightening with frustration.

“No way!” Trent and Bevan retorted together.

“How else would we express our adoration for you?” Trent added, giving her knee a squeeze and making her yelp. She hated being imprisoned between them like that.

“You’re actually a Pickering for the day,” Henry’s younger sister Georgia told Lizzi when they met up in the auditorium. She linked their arms together, giving Lizzi’s arm an affectionate squeeze. “The boys get four tickets each, and we only needed three, but your family needed five.”

“That’s fine,” Lizzi smiled back at the fifteen-year-old, grateful for the acceptance the girl was bestowing on her. The relief she felt at not having to sit with any of her brothers was almost overwhelming.

The graduation ceremony passed without incident. Afterwards, Lizzi noticed that the twins were involving Paul and Henry in a number of secretive huddles. They all had their mobile phones out at one stage, and Lizzi, despite the happy chatter of Georgia at her side, felt her heart sitting heavily in her stomach. There were photos and banter, but Lizzi smiled dutifully and said as little as possible.

Of course there was dinner that night. The evening was cool, so Lizzi, like her mother, Mrs Pickering and Georgia, wore a different outfit for the occasion.

“You’re looking lovely again tonight, Lizzi,” Henry said amiably as she walked past him to take her seat, thankfully between Mr Pickering and Georgia at the dinner table. She nodded her acknowledgement of the compliment, and eased into the safety of her seat.

Desserts were being served when Paul turned to his sister and asked her in a voice so innocent the hair on the back of her neck bristled in alarm, “So who’s this bloke you’ve been seeing, Lizzi?”

She didn’t want to answer.

“Oh, are you seeing someone?” Georgia asked, her tone an odd mixture of horror, dismay, delight and intrigue.

“Yes,” Lizzi answered her newest friend, unable to be rude to her, even to defend herself against her brothers. “His name is Fred.”

Immediately, with hastily rehearsed precision, Trent began the chanted lyrics that she’d known would not be far away.

“Marry Freddie!” he exclaimed in pinched and pompous outrage. “What an infantile idea.”

“What a heartless, wicked, brainless thing to do,” Paul added, mimicking Trent’s vocal inflections seamlessly.

“But she’ll regret it. She’ll regret it!” Bevan continued with tremulous, hammed-up certainty.

“It’s doomed before they even take the vow,” Henry added with mortician-like foreboding.

Lizzi, who had begun to eat her pecan pie, laid her dessert fork back down on her plate. “Are you serious?” she said calmly across the table to her brothers and their collaborator, stopping them before they could plunge any further into their planned taunt. “Are you really serious? You haven’t seen me for two years, and you spend your whole afternoon figuring out how to humiliate me. Again.” She laid her napkin on the table, got to her feet and left the table with her clutch purse in hand.

“She’ll be back,” her brothers said to each other, and the others at the table.

“Oh, of course she will,” Mrs Peirce agreed, taking another mouthful of her sticky date pudding.

Nobody said anything for an uncomfortable moment. Then Georgia piped up. “Well, if I was her, I wouldn’t!”

“Georgia!” her parents said in unison.

Georgia, however, was glaring across the table at her big brother. “How could you do something like that to her, Henry?” He didn’t answer her. “You’re always telling us how nice she is and how pretty she is and how beautifully she’s growing up … and you treat her like that!”

Paul turned his head and opened his mouth to say something to his friend, but no sound emerged. Trent and Bevan also looked shocked.

“Oh, she knows it’s all in fun,” Mr Peirce told Georgia soothingly. “She knows that’s how the boys express their love for her.”

Georgia, quite used to expressing her opinions at home, turned to him and raised her eyebrows. “That’s an expression of love?”

“Yes, of course it is,” Mr Peirce replied, though less comfortably this time. “The boys have been doing this for years. They put a lot of time and effort into learning these songs, so they can amuse her with them at appropriate times.”

“Well, I don’t know if you noticed or not,” Georgia told him with patient firmness, “but she wasn’t amused. She was hurt.” She looked across the table again and engaged her eyes with her brothers’. “And if that’s how you express love to a girl, you’ll die a sad and unhappy old man.”

“Oh, don’t say that, love,” Mrs Peirce sighed patronisingly. “It’s an expression of love,” she added, reiterating the point her husband had made earlier.

Georgia shook her head firmly. “No it’s not. If Lizzi doesn’t understand it as love, then it isn’t love.”

Around the table, nobody said anything. Everyone looked at their plates.

“I should go talk to her,” Henry said, scraping his chair back.

“You won’t catch her,” Georgia told him certainly.

“Oh, she’ll just be sulking back at the hotel,” Mrs Peirce said knowledgeably.

“If I was her, I wouldn’t be,” Georgia said quietly to her parents.

 

Lizzi was back at her own university by morning, in her own room, packing boxes. By midday she had met with the Dean, and within the week, she was driving north to finish her degree at a different university.

Phone calls came, but she declined to answer them. She got a new sim card for her phone and threw the old one off a bridge somewhere.

Letters followed her – she tore them up.

Fred came to visit her. She told him not to come again.

“You’re a lovely girl, Lizzi,” he told her sadly, hugging her goodbye. “I hope you get this rubbish with your family sorted some time.”

 

After she graduated, Lizzi took the remotest posting possible. Nobody would look for her in Broken Hill.

She quite liked living amidst the red dirt and intense heat of the mining town. Teaching in the primary school wasn’t always easy, but she made friends amongst her colleagues and neighbours. After a year or so, she was even able to purchase a lovely old house, with lots of help from the bank, of course.

When her third year at the school was drawing to a close, she threw a party at her house for her colleagues. It was part house warming, and part birthday party for her friend Lydia.

The house was festooned with balloons and tinsel and streamers, and as the guests arrived, two piles beneath the Christmas tree grew, with Secret Santa presents for everyone on one side, and a separate pile just for Lydia.

Lizzi was having a wonderful time, carrying trays of food around the place amongst her mingling guests. Most of the men had beers in their hands, and most of the women were drinking either white wine or shandies. Out under the awning in the backyard, Lizzi found a group of people who were standing around empty handed, and hurried to bring them out something cool to drink, as well as a fresh tray of food. As she handed the last stubby from the carton to the last man standing, she looked up at him, saying, “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Lizzi.”

She didn’t know everyone there, by any means. Everyone had brought somebody with them, and she only knew a few of her colleagues’ partners anyway.

“Hi Lizzi,” the man said, smiling down into her eyes. Her blood ran cold. “I’m Henry.”

She blinked at him. “No.” She shook her head. “No.” Mining Engineer. Broken Hill Mining. “No.”

The next thing she knew, Henry and another man were helping her down into a seat, and Brenda, the librarian, was bringing her a glass of iced water.

 

They met for brunch in the café of one of the town’s art galleries.

“They’d love to just know that you’re okay,” Henry told Lizzi gently.

“I don’t want them to know where I am,” she said flatly. “I’m the happiest I’ve been in my life, away from all that ridicule.”

Henry nodded. “I can see that.” He couldn’t just then because she was pale and nervous seeing him, but he’d watched her from a distance for an hour last night before he’d had to introduce himself. He’d never seen her laugh like that, ever. She was lovely.

The waitress brought them cool drinks, and then food.

“They thought it was loving, teasing you, you know,” Henry braved.

“It wasn’t. It was cruel. The joke was always on me. It never included me.”

Henry chewed his lip. “You know that it was supposed to be on me at the start too, do you?”

“What do you mean?”

“The joke started about Eliza and Henry, didn’t it?”

“Yes, but you joined in!”

He shrugged. “Survival. It’s what blokes do. You figure out how to be one of the boys.”

“By chanting show tunes to make a vulnerable adolescent girl feel even more worthless than she already does.” She snorted. “How very manly and gentlemenly of you.”

He pulled a face, not really managing to suppress his grin. “It was funny, Liz. Honestly. Seeing those boofy blokes learning how to recite poetry so they could stir up their kid sister. It was actually kinda cool to be part of it.”

“I’m pleased for you,” she said drily.

The waitress brought them more water.

Then she brought them the dessert menu.

“Just an iced tea for me, please,” Lizzi said without looking.

Henry ordered a coffee, and settled back to look at her across the table. “I’m here for a year,” he said amiably. “I met Shonna at the pub last week.”

“Well, I hope you two will be very happy.”

“Don’t be so damned stupid, Lizzi!” Henry shot at her.

She raised an eyebrow at him in a way that reminded him, oddly, of Georgia. “I’m a lot of things, Henry. Over-sensitive, too serious, humourless, etcetera. But I am not stupid.” She eyed him steadily. “Why would you think I was stupid?”

“Shonna’s some chick I met in a pub. You are …” He couldn’t say it. Not yet.

“I’m what, Henry?”

He didn’t answer. He was remembering that Georgia had spent the two weeks of each of the last three years out in Broken Hill. She had photos of all the local tourist attractions. Rocks. Pro Hart. She had been fervent in her encouragement of him taking the Broken Hill offer, rather than the Queensland one or the Western Australian one.

“I’m what, Henry?” Lizzi repeated, sounding like her patience and her presence were both nearing their end.

He was about to open his mouth to out Georgia as the match-making little minx he’d just recognised that she was, but had to stop himself. That wouldn’t be smart.

Lizzi was on her feet. “Thank you for breakfast Henry. It’s been nice seeing you again. I’m sure Broken Hill is large enough that we don’t need to bump into each other very often at all, really. Shonna and I aren’t particular friends, so feel free to continue doing with her what she’s been so happy about for the last week!”

He watched her stalk off, realising that he’d known this meeting would end like this. He was too well trained by her brothers not to antagonise her still.

 

“Hi Mrs Peirce,” Henry said from the lounge room of his single bedroom company-owned flat. “Yeah, settling in well.” He paused for a moment while she responded again. “Mrs Peirce … can I ask you something?” he asked in all seriousness.

She gave her assent.

“Mrs Peirce … you’re a woman.”

“Well, yes …” she responded uncertainly. It wasn’t an observation he usually bothered to articulate.

“Well … why can’t a woman be more like a man? Men are so decent. Such regular chaps. Ready to help you through any mishaps. Ready too buck you up whenever you are glum. Why can’t a woman … be a chum?” His tone was full of ignorant bewilderment, but void of melodramatic affectation.

“Oh Henry!” Mrs Peirce laughed. “You’re such a goose!”

“Why is thinking something women never do? Why is logic never even tried? Straightening up their hair is all they ever do! Why don’t they … straighten up the mess that’s inside?” He had the teasing chant in his tone now, but Mrs Peirce hadn’t picked up on it yet. The serious edge in his tone had distracted her.

“Henry! That’s a bit rough, darl!”

“Why can’t a woman behave like a man? If I was a woman who’d been to a ball … been hailed as a princess by one and by all … Would I start weeping like a bathtub overflowing? Or carry on as if my home were in a tree? Would I run off and never tell me where I’m going? Why can’t a woman … be like me?”

Mrs Peirce was crying softly now, as his utterance began to make sense to her. “You’ve found her. You found our Lizzi.”

“Yes,” agreed Henry gently. “But she’s not your Lizzi any more. She’s even more wonderful than she was, and if she ever comes home again, you’ll all have to meet her as the woman she is, rather than who you all just assumed she was.”

 

The children had been dismissed on the last day of school, and Lizzi was just doing one last check of her classroom, making sure that no fish remained in the tank, and that Ellery Peters really had remembered to take Bertie the Bunny home with him from the hutch.

A knock sounded on the glass of the open door, and Lizzi straightened from stowing a box of books in the bottom of the cupboard. “Come in!” she called cheerily, sliding the aged cupboard door closed and wondering how much longer they’d have to wait for the promised refurbishment funding.

When her eyes made it to the door, she stood stock still. Henry stood there, holding a massive arrangement of native flora in his hands. “Merry Christmas,” he said, chancing a hopeful wobbly smile.

“What are you doing here?” Lizzi asked tersely, heading for her desk to collect her handbag so she could get out of there.

“I’m here for lessons, please Miss,” Henry told her pleadingly.

She looked at him angrily, expecting to see that he was teasing her. He didn’t seem to be. “Lessons in what?”

“Lessons in how to really know Lizzi Peirce,” he suggested. “Lessons in how to be her friend, and …”

“And what?”

He pulled a face and twisted his head, neck and shoulders awkwardly. “Maybe more?”

“Oh! Now you’re being ridiculous!”

Henry didn’t move from the doorway. He shook his head. “No, I’m not.”

“What about Shonna?”

“Shonna knew even before the party at your place that I wasn’t interested in her. When she heard I was new in town, she asked if I’d like to come to your party to meet some people. She mentioned your name, and I asked some questions to make sure it really was you. I told her I was an old family friend.”

Lizzi stared at him. He really was very bold.

He twisted his upper body again, clearly not wholly comfortable under her scrutiny. “She told me even before we left the party that she could see that we had a thing for each other, Liz. I’m not cheating on her. I was never with her. She was happy because she knew she was helping me, and she hoped she was doing something nice for you, because you’re a good friend, she said.”

“I’m not going home for Christmas!” Lizzi exclaimed abruptly, as if she suddenly thought all his motives had to be ulterior in some way.

He laughed softly. “God no! I’ve got to learn how to stand up for you and not sing any more My Fair Lady songs at you, just cos your brothers are around!”

She nodded slowly. “Those are some very hard lessons you’re signing up for, Mr Pickering.”

He nodded back. “Yeah. I know.” He already knew she was worth it.

 

They were married during the September holidays the next year. Henry made it very clear to everyone that this was a public declaration of where all his allegiances lay from now on. Lizzi watched her brothers warily.

While the packed church waited for the bride to arrive, a barbershop quartet serenaded the congregation with strains of Wouldn’t It Be Loverly and Get Me To The Church On Time.

During his speech, Henry told everyone the story of how Lizzi had hated him because he conspired with her brothers, and how the Marry Freddy serenade at his graduation had been the undoing of her, but that in truth he really had Grown Accustomed To Her Face, and thanks to Georgia, Lizzi was at last able to share in the joke that she’d never got before.

When Mr Peirce made his speech, he stood nervously for a few moments without speaking. The entire reception hall was in a hush, waiting for him. He cleared his throat. “It’s a frightening thing for a father,” he said finally, his voice shaking a little bit, “to see a fifteen year old boy look at your thirteen year old daughter in a certain way … and to be whisked in a moment down a corridor of time to see their future spread before them, and know that it’s right. Then, to come back to reality, to where she is only thirteen, and know that as her father, you just can’t let it happen yet.”

He cleared his throat again. He turned to look softly as Lizzi, who had never looked more beautiful in her life. “I’m sorry you got hurt, honey. But when those boys started singing those songs to my fair little lady, they served to protect you from meeting your destiny too soon – before you knew who you were. Your mum and I, we’re glad Henry found you now, and we’re very proud of the woman you’ve become.” He didn’t sing or recite any verses, and when he returned to his seat, Lizzi intercepted him with a tight hug.

“We have one last gift for you,” Paul said, almost nervously, having given his best man speech and raised glasses to Georgia and the other beautiful bridesmaids. Trent and Bevan came to stand with him, and looking directly at Henry, he began, quite seriously: “Tonight, old man, you did it!”

“You did it! You did it!” Trent and Bevan chorused.

“You said that you would do it and indeed you did,” Paul affirmed.

“We thought that you would rue it,” Trent added solemnly. “We doubted you’d do it.”

“But now we must admit it,” Bevan assured them, “That succeed you did.”

Together the brothers chorused, “You should get a medal, or be even made a knight.”

Henry, knowing his part, grinned, “Oh, it was nothing. Really nothing.” He smiled softly at Lizzi and squeezed her hand, hoping she wouldn’t mind too much this parting gift from his old mates.

“All alone you hurdled every obstacle in sight,” the brothers retorted, but that was where Henry left it. He didn’t go on to insist that some of the credit was due to his new brothers-in-law. Lizzi wasn’t at ease any more.

“Thanks guys,” he said, getting to his feet and pulling Lizzi after him, he moved to go and hug his mates. “Thanks for the parting words, guys. I … we … appreciate the gesture. But it’s over now. There will be no more musical recitations from you Peirce boys. Understood?” Everyone saw that they did, even as Henry and Lizzi hugged them all.

Henry and Lizzi cut the cake to On The Street Where You Live, and danced to I Could Have Danced All Night.

“So that’s it, huh?” Paul sighed, obviously with some sadness, having helped Lizzi get into the back of the limousine that would bear Mr Pickering and his fair lady off on their honeymoon.

“Yes it is,” Lizzi said firmly, smiling fondly at him and giving his cheek a parting kiss. A lot had healed.

“Yes it is,” Henry affirmed, even more sternly, when Paul said the same to him. “You’ve already seen that she’s strong enough to leave if it isn’t. I’m not risking that, ever again.”

“So that’s it,” Paul sighed to Trent and Bevan as the limousine cruised down the driveway and away from them.

“Yeah,” the twins exhaled in unison.

“Well, except maybe for special occasions like birthdays,” Trent said.

“And anniversaries,” Bevan added.

“And christenings,” Paul grinned. “After all, uncles are a very important part of kids’ lives. Even if it’s only sometimes.”