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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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Isolation December 26, 2009

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Writing prompt: “Write about what you didn’t say.”


They arrived a few days before Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all agreed, and hugged each other close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lime Green and Tongue Tied December 14, 2009

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insurrection November 25, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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

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.

The Fundraiser October 26, 2009

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Writing prompt: “The Fundraiser”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How come you never said?”

“Because you were friends with her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s he?” I asked.

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

I blinked at Jim. “At thirty-five?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canteen Girl October 21, 2009

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nerida dried herself and started mopping the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future Unfolding October 18, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt: “Your future starts here.”

 

‘Your future starts here.’

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But.

Three little letters.

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

Even worse than the fortunes inside Chinese baked goods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in the Day October 12, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt: “In those days …”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Fair Lady September 22, 2009

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No way!” Trent and Bevan retorted together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t want to answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Georgia!” her parents said in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Letters followed her – she tore them up.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The waitress brought them cool drinks, and then food.

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Yes, but you joined in!”

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

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

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

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

The waitress brought them more water.

Then she brought them the dessert menu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m what, Henry?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

She gave her assent.

“Mrs Peirce … you’re a woman.”

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

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

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

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

“Henry! That’s a bit rough, darl!”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what?”

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

“Oh! Now you’re being ridiculous!”

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

“What about Shonna?”

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

Lizzi stared at him. He really was very bold.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” the twins exhaled in unison.

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

“And anniversaries,” Bevan added.

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