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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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Hideout March 30, 2009

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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.