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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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Canteen Girl October 21, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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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.