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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! 🙂

The Office Secret November 30, 2009

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Writing prompt: compulsion, executive, obtain, wistful, cathartic, naive.


She was a small, delicate woman, who moved about the office with a sense of compulsion. Quick and efficient, yet poised and effortless with it, the younger women could not fathom her at all. She had an almost ethereal beauty, gliding through her purposes with an economy and grace of movement beyond their comprehension or capability.

Marlené had worked for many years as the executive assistant to David Grant, company chief and noted philanthropist. The office girls liked to call her Mar-leen, in their common, dishonouring manner, but Marlené herself would always correct them with dignity, engaging their eyes with her own steady, knowing blue ones, and say with a firm, well-modulated tone and an eloquent smile, “Mah-lane-uh.” She had learned, at the hands of a previous generation of office girls, to pronounce ‘lane’ rather than ‘lay’ as the middle syllable of her name.

Those rumours persisted, of course. David Grant was known to be single, and early gossip questioning his sexual orientation had long been dispelled throughout the company. The preferred suspicion was that elegant, gamine Marlené was his chatelaine.

There was no hint of any such impropriety from either Mr Grant or Marlené within the office. They both conducted themselves with the ultimate in professional courtesy. He called her Marlené of course, but she only ever referred to him as Mr Grant, meeting his deadlines, arranging his itinerary and keeping his diary with fastidious correctness.

There was little hint when Marlené became ill. She still wore her impeccable, stylish yet feminine business suits, yet she seemed to shrink within them. The soft glow of her cheeks became more obviously artificial, and her eyes dulled though somehow became keener still, as if she longed to not miss a thing.

Mr Grant, who had never been unkind to Marlené ever, had sometimes been sharp or urgent in his directives to her in the course of the business day. It became obvious, however, that he began to still himself and speak with the utmost kindness and respect with every interaction he had with her. Instead of buzzing through and asking if documentation had arrived, he would leave his desk to seek Marlené out in person to obtain the information.

Nobody needed to ask if Marlené was sick, because it was very obvious that she was. Sometimes the girls from the main office would take paperwork or messages through to the executive suite, and find Marlené just staring off into space with a wistful expression. They all reported that she seemed serene and otherwise efficient, but all fretted and mused about what could possibly be wrong with her.

Marlené had never been a smoker, so it wasn’t likely that it was lung cancer. Perhaps it was a different form of cancer – but then, there was no evidence of her having any kind of treatment. Some pondered that perhaps she had developed food allergies, while others suggested a heart condition or a liver disease. Nobody ever asked, though, because Marlené did not invite questions of herself. She engaged with all the staff in a professionally interested way, but that was always about executive care of staff and no reciprocation was required or received.

It was a rare morning when Marlené did not arrive in the office. Nobody could recall a day when she was not ensconced, with the executive coffee pot already percolating, when everyone else arrived to populate the office for the day. That she was not at her desk at 8:29am on a Monday morning was most unsettling.

At 8:40am, the pay mistress phoned Marlené’s home number from her file.

At 8:47am, she phoned Marlené’s mobile phone.

At 8:53am, she phoned David Grant’s mobile phone. He was en route to a business meeting in Hong Kong, so all she could do was leave a message.

At 10:14am, the front desk receptionist received a phone call from an unnamed male, advising that Marlené Cossington would not be at work for the rest of the week.

It was very distressing. There were so many little things around the place that Marlené just took care of, or reminded others to take care of.

The office didn’t seem to run as smoothly. People were fretful.

At 4:23pm, David Grant phoned from Hong Kong to say that he would be back in the office on Wednesday afternoon instead of the following Monday.

Beyond that, there was no information. Oddly, there was little discussion, either. Nobody liked it that Marlené wasn’t around. She was the glue that held the place together; the grease that kept the machinery running efficiently, so to speak.

When Mr Grant stepped out of the office at 3:57pm on Wednesday afternoon, his greying hair was as impeccable as always, his suit was sharp and his demeanour full of his usual authority. It was only the last point that caused concerned eyes to snap to attention and wonder what was going on. His current confidence was such a contrast as to highlight that for the last few months, his deportment had held an uncharacteristic sag.

“I will speak to all staff in the conference room in half an hour,” Mr Grant advised the wide-eyed receptionist. As soon as he strode through the door into the executive wing of the floor, she was on the phone trying to figure out how they would fit so many people into the room all at once.

When he walked into the conference room at 4:28pm, the room was indeed jam-packed. The most junior staff were sitting on the floor right before the podium like kindergarteners. The next rows of the most senior staff in age were on chairs, then some sat on the edges of the tables that lined the back walls, and the young, fit men lined the back wall, standing on the tables.

Mr Grant took in the scene before him. “Thank you all,” he said, and they relaxed at the warmth in his tone. “As you are aware, my trusted assistant, Marlené, has not been at work this week. She has, in fact, been in hospital.”

A gasp arose from the assembled 71 staff.

He held up his hand. “She is well cared for, in good hands, and will return to her usual vigour swiftly now.” Suddenly though, Mr Grant sagged. “She is my wife,” he said. “I will tell you our story.”

It was as if the entire assemblage held its breath.

“Marlené is not sick, as such, she is pregnant.”

Questions were voiced, and Mr Grant did no shy away from answering them.

Initially, difference in their ages (nineteen years) and Marlené’s non-Catholic religion barred their union. Out of respect for his mother, they avoided relationship completely for a number of years. Mr Grant explained that although Marlené had been naïve, she had always been highly principled. They simply worked together cordially, then parted company at the end of the day.

It was during a rail strike and a torrential downpour that Marlené accepted his offer of a ride home. He took her out for dinner on the way, they talked, laughed, and at last admitted the depth of the attraction between them. For three years they conducted an unconsummated courtship, only ever outside working hours, until on a weekend drive in the country, he proposed.

Marlené explained that she knew she would never be able to have children, due to an untreatable medical condition. Mr Grant’s mother, a true aristocratic matriarch, would not accept a daughter-in-law who was not ‘of the faith’. For some time, the situation appeared completely untenable.

Then, over dinner one evening, Marlené offered a solution. ‘I enjoy my independence, as you do,’ she explained. ‘We are legally able to marry. We could do so, and spend the time together that we do now, but with …’ As Mr Grant explained it, her words trailed off, and everyone understood. Thus, their wedding took place and remained a secret to all, save themselves (who never forgot) and the officials (who performed their ceremony then moved on to the next pair, rapidly forgetting all the names along the way).

They had been married for seventeen years already, Mr Grant still officially living in his family’s generational mansion with his mother, and Marlené still in her tiny cottage in a very different part of town. Somehow the arrangement worked.

Neither of them expected to be parents. That was a miracle. It was a huge shock, and it was the shock more than morning sickness that had made Marlené seem so gaunt and frail, especially at first. Then, Mr Grant had begun to insist that this eventuality was just the cathartic jolt they needed to tell his mother about their marriage and their expected baby. They had fought about it again just before his departure for Hong Kong.

“She stopped to speak with a neighbour on her way to the train station on Monday morning,” Mr Grant explained to the office. “She fainted, the ambulance came, and she has been hospitalised since. It was a male nurse who called in to advise of her absence from work.”

Mr Grant seemed much relieved to have told his staff the truth about himself and Marlené, and was flooded with congratulations regarding both his marriage and impending fatherhood. He squared his shoulders again as he entered the lift, ready to face his mother.

Nobody ever knew how that meeting went. Mrs Grant senior died within a week of the news, and in due time Marlené became an elegant mother who appeared in society pages. She did not return to work as her husband’s assistant, but her young male replacement found that despite their diminutive size, hers were indeed very large shoes to fill.

The staff noted the extra jauntiness in Mr Grant’s step thereafter, and if Marlené did visit the office with little Jonathan, he was openly affectionate with them both, in his dignified way.

They all wondered why they’d never guessed. How such love had escaped their prying eyes for so many years. The wiser ones amongst them concluded that it was because they had no right to know. The older, more prideful ones assumed a retrospective knowledge, and the younger, romantic ones all dreamed of one day finding a love like that.

For David, Marlené and little Jonathan Grant, however, they just smiled at each other and enjoyed the next phase of their lives, being together openly and living properly together in their new mid-sized suburban home.

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

Endurance November 16, 2009

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I was a bit stumped for a writing prompt this week – the one in my book didn’t inspire me, and both my sisters seem to have lost a little enthusiasm of late, with no prompts forthcoming from them.

My solution was to log onto Facebook and ask my friends for suggestions. Shari, Lindy, Heather and Isaac, God bless them, came up with the following for me to see what I could do with: Ocean, Grass, Floriade, Swings and Picnic? lol; Endless expanses of wonder… ; What is the exercise?; Toyota?; A frog; Me? (Isaac); Douglas Adams

HELP!!!

 

I woke up with a stiff back to the sound of a kookaburra laughing it’s head off out there in the bush somewhere. Clearly not very far away. Certainly not far enough, as far as I was concerned. But that’d be right – even a bird that didn’t know me or care about me was having a shot at my misery.

Oh Lord! I wonder why the bunk beds in these wretched conference facilities are designed to make you grateful you’re not a prisoner of war somewhere. Between the snoring of my room mates, the thin-ness of the blankets and the unyielding stiffness of the mattress, I momentarily wondered if the Geneva Convention should be informed. Did they still exist? Ah, they wouldn’t care anyway. No more than that wretched kookaburra did.

Breakfast, predictably, was stodgy. Porridge with golden syrup or brown sugar and full cream milk, greasy eggs and bacon, and only butter available for the toast. Ugh.

I should have been more thankful for it, I suppose, given that our early-morning team-building exercise was a five kilometre bushwalk over a horrible track. I couldn’t help thinking ‘Kokoda,’ even though I know that would have to be worse – that track kills people, and no matter how out of sorts I was, I did know that the happy little jaunt I was forced to go on just after first light this morning wasn’t going to do that. I’m just not much on all this heartiness. Hearty food, hearty exercises, hearty lectures … Lord, what I wouldn’t give to be back at my desk just getting on with my job, sipping on a skinny latte from the coffee shop downstairs and looking out the window over the ocean at Bondi to stop me feeling stressed if I needed it.

“Doesn’t this place just make all your muscles go ‘Ahhh?’” sighed dreamy Delana from Accounts.

Isaac from Purchasing looked at her cynically. “More like ‘Aaarrrggghhhh!’” he grunted with dramatic wide eyes and a comically tortured facial expression.

That was this morning, and since then we’ve endured a lot.

First up was a session about the future of the company (it has one), followed by a stodgy morning tea of overly-strong tea or bitter instant coffee, accompanied by endless fat-laden sugary cakes and sweets. The only fruit they had was either not ripe yet, or blemished and bruised beyond redemption. Yuck. After that was another session, teaching us all how to be sweet and smile at each other while we castigate each other for our inefficiencies. Oh, that’s right, we’re supposed to ‘encourage higher quality efficiency’ from one another. Uh-huh.

Lunch was an array of sandwiches, thankfully on fresh bread, but with fillings such as ham sliced with all the fat left on it, or eggs curried with too much mayonnaise and cheap curry powder. By then I was beginning to think I really would die. But then, I do every year at these wretched things. Annoyingly, I survive. Or at least I have so far.

For free time after lunch, I ran away from everybody I knew – not literally, though. That would have hurt after all the physical torture they’ve put us through since we arrived last night. Across the grass and through the trees I went, and down to a really pretty fallen tree by the little creek that I’d spied on our morning walk. I got myself set up there with my book, a freshly opened bottled water, and a nice crisp apple that I’d had the foresight to bring with me.

That part of the time, at least, was refreshing. There was even a frog or a cricket or something nearby, and it seemed to have the knack of croaking just when I got to some interesting part of the story. Douglas Adams books always make me laugh anyway, but I nearly fell off my perch (the log I was sitting on) when, just after I’d read Slartibartfast’s words, ‘Doing the coastlines was always my favourite. Used to have endless fun doing all the fiddly bits and fjords,’ my companion-frog croaked loudly. It made me laugh out loud, because it made me re-read what I’d just read a moment earlier, and wonder if that’s how God felt when he created the Earth. It was like God himself had said “Amen” to Slarti’s words. I wondered if God was ever astounded at all the endless expanses of wonder that He created. Did He ever sit back and go, “Yay Me! Hey angels, come and check this out!” I wonder.

Annoyingly, I heard somebody calling my name. Glancing at my watch, it was obvious that I’d already missed the predictably indigestible afternoon tea, and my lack of presence at the afternoon’s boring session had been noticed. I showed myself to Delana, waving so she’d know I was on my way, and just as I was heading back up towards the grassy area, a message beeped on my phone. I read it while I walked.

Mum. J & I kids taking 2 Floriade 2moz. Cum  down after conf so we can c yr fancy new Toyota. Kids want swings & picnic 4 tea: meet lakeside 6pm. P, T, K & N cumn 2.

I was always amazed that my spelling-fanatic mother could bear to use text-talk. I knew she was economising so that everything she wanted to say would fit into just one message, but I was still stunned.

But! Mum and my sister Janelle were planning to take Janelle and Pete’s kids to Floriade tomorrow (that’s Canberra’s annual bulb show), then have a picnic by the swings at the lake for dinner. Their friends Ken and Nell were coming too, as was Pete’s mate Tom!

Suddenly, my world was a happier place! Perhaps I wouldn’t die after all.

Time with my nieces and nephews is always fun, but Tom, who’d been partnered with me at Pete and Janelle’s wedding about a decade ago, was coming to yet another family do! I was only fifteen when Janelle got married, but it had been obvious to everyone that I’d had a huge crush on Tom, who was finished uni and working in IT or something. Tom and I had managed to avoid each other completely from the wedding until a few months ago – and the avoidance was mutual, because I’d nearly died of embarrassment when I realised that everyone knew about my crush including the victim of it. Since last Christmas though, Tom and I had bumped into each other every time I visited my family in Canberra. And he doesn’t seem even the least bit inclined to run away any more.

Wanting to see the new car indeed! Huh! I quickly texted Mum, saying that I’d try to make it (knowing very well that I wouldn’t miss it for anything!), and hurried into the conference session.

“Okay, so what’s the exercise?” I hissed, sliding into a seat beside Meriden and taking in the scene before me. A dozen staff members were crawling over the floor, retrieving coloured lengths of metal. It certainly looked odd to me!

“It’s a team-building exercise,” Meriden whispered back. “I think the bosses are trying to figure out who’s a leader and who’s a follower. They actually have to figure out how to build a pyramid out of all that lot.”

I groaned. Didn’t we do this every year? Same ruse, different exercise? Oh well, with the joy now set before me, I figured I could endure this round of torture after all.

Canteen Girl October 21, 2009

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nerida dried herself and started mopping the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future Unfolding October 18, 2009

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Writing prompt: “Your future starts here.”

 

‘Your future starts here.’

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But.

Three little letters.

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

Even worse than the fortunes inside Chinese baked goods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in the Day October 12, 2009

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Writing prompt: “In those days …”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call Me Names October 12, 2009

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Writing Prompt: “Names”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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