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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.”

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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.

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.

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.

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.

My Fair Lady September 22, 2009

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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.”

The Hideout March 30, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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1 comment so far

The writing prompt said, “Describe a hideout.” This is my attempt to do just that. 

Four boys stood bunched together at Jonno’s back gate, silently contemplating the expanse of bushland that beckoned them from the other side of Mr McGinty’s paddock.

It took the minute or so of a lifetime to feel the resurgence of bravery in their midst.

Then Jacko, the oldest of them, gave a nod. “Let’s do it.” And as a man, they trod the drought-baked ruts of McGinty’s Lane, and eased themselves between the jagged teeth of McGinty’s barbed wire fence.

The newly liberated forest almost vibrated with the energy of shaking off its winter coat, and allowing all the potential that had been incubated throughout winter to emerge wide-eyed and bursting with excitement. All around, greenery shot forth from otherwise dead-looking twigs, and newly formed wild-flowers blinked themselves awake into the sunshine.

It is possible, too, that the air was alive with piercing bird sounds, and that the creatures of the forest floor were scuttling about with the same eager energy. Sometimes, however, when you are on a mission, the beauty that surrounds you, no matter how overt or flamboyant it may be, would only be a distraction if you allowed it your attention.

The small troupe of boys who wordlessly trod the familiar paths of the colour-laden forest weren’t particularly mindful of any beauty. All they knew was that it was the first weekend for months and forever that their mothers had allowed them to venture out amongst the trees to return to the fort where so much of their last summer had been played out.

Somewhere between the back gate and the depths of the forest, each boy had found himself a suitable stick. It wasn’t a conscious thing – none of them needed any help traversing the paddocks or the paths – but a stick in the hands of a boy seemed a completely necessary thing, deep in the psyche of each one who trod the path.

Somebody whacked at a bush with their stick, and Jacko, in the lead, turned briefly to glare in the direction of the offender.

This approach to the hideout, the first for the spring, was sacred.

Something made a nearby bush rustle, and Dink, at the back, squeaked. He hastily stifled the sound, not wanting Jacko’s glare turned in his direction.

“What if there’s a bear?” Buddy voiced suddenly, high pitched and frightened.

“There’s no bears around these parts,” Jonno shot back scathingly.

“Shut up,” Jacko ordered.

Abruptly, he stopped. The others gathered around him. There, across the rocks of the dry creek bed and up the slope a bit, it was.

It didn’t look quite as it had done in summer, when vines entangled themselves with the boughs and sticks and old palings that the boys had used to enhance its camouflage, and the canopy of trees hung low around them. The structure seemed intact from a distance, and fresh foliage and blossom was beginning to emerge on the vinery.

It was Dink who broke rank first, and began to scramble over the rocks and up the slope to their hideout, his hiking stick abandoned where he’d stood.

Ducking behind the prickly bush at the entrance, he fell from habit to his knees and crawled inside. Blood from the angry jab of a jagged rock smeared with dirt down his shin as he moved, but it didn’t matter. The ground beneath him was dry, but the shroud above him smelled damp and sweet, almost acrid in some places, but breathtakingly familiar.

In the back corner, he found the remnants of their last meal from the end of summer. The rusting baked bean tin, an empty soft drink can, and a soggy chip packet all seemed to say, “Remember?”

Behind him, Dink heard the others arrive, not quite as breathless as he had been moments before.

“It’s smaller,” he called out to them.

“You’ve grown, you idiot!” Jonno called back.

One after the other they crawled inside, looking around, tasting the atmosphere in their breath, the urgency for fun almost palpable. This year, though, they could not heed the call.

The four of them unconsciously took up their designated posts from last summer and sat in silence. Dink was at the back; his big brother by a year and a bit, Jonno, to his left; Buddy to his left and Jacko straight in front of him, their guard at the doorway.

This summer wasn’t going to be like last.

This summer, Jacko and Jonno were going away on a cadet camp.

This summer, Buddy’s family was moving to the other side of the country.

This summer, Dink would be the sole custodian of their sacred place.

He brushed the still-trickling blood away from his knee and wordlessly reached into the corner to scrape the debris from last summer into a pile between them.

He picked up the baked bean tin first. Handing it to Jacko, he said, “You looked after us all. Keep it, hey? Remember.”

Jacko took it, but didn’t reply.

Dink picked up the chip packet and let some stagnant water drip out onto the dirt below. Holding it towards Jonno, he said. “You didn’t want to, but you shared. Remember?”

To Buddy, he handed the coke can. “You refreshed us all, buddy. Remember us.”

Summers fade, boys grow, and mostly, life goes on.

The hideout never again saw all four boys together.

Jonno brought his girlfriend there, but didn’t come again until she was his wife, and pregnant. When it was subdivided, they bought the land from Mr McGinty that had the hideout in its back corner, and Jonno’s sons played there as they grew.

Buddy came once to visit Jonno, healthy and hearty, with a tribe of rowdy children and a face streaming with tears.

Jacko visited sometimes, and he came when Buddy did, stony-faced and unbelieving.

“You wouldn’t think that one annoying kid could leave such a mark on a landscape, would you?” he said to his old friends, surveying the scene of their childhood revelry.

Jonno finished hammering the cross into the ground outside the fort. Beneath it, along with the ashes,  lay an old coke can, a dried and smoothed out faded chip packet, and a rusty baked bean can. The cross itself read: Dink won, cancer lost.

“Or a heart,” he said quietly.