Winning and Commended Stories from the 2020 Competition
by Trish Veltman
My shoelaces are missing again.
My running shoes lie strewn on the floor, pointing in opposite directions. A ladder of darker grooves imprints the white leather tongues.
The first time, we have this conversation.
- Have you seen my shoelaces?
- What do you want laces for?
- I want to go for a run. There's no laces in my running shoes.
- It's raining. You can't go running in the rain.
He doesn't like me running. Thinks other men in the park will watch me, stare at my breasts, my legs. Not my face - he says my face would put a man off his beer. I tell him I don't run in the park. I go along the river, under the trees. Nobody else runs there, the path is too winding, straddled with tree roots like old bones. It's safe in the trees. I like to hear wind sing through leaves.
The second time, we have this conversation.
- My shoelaces are missing again.
- How the hell do you lose your laces?
- Did you take them?
He gets that look on his face - eyes flashing icicles, nostrils flare like wings. White-lipped smile. His voice hums like velvet - the touch of velvet rubbed against the nap.
- What would I need with your laces?
He laughs, as if I’ve cracked some eccentric joke. And he sighs, a shivering sound that makes me think of ghosts.
- I don't know.
- I need a beer. You're doing my head in. Get me a beer.
He stretches out on the sofa, socked feet propped on the arm. Grey socks. Lighter grey in a patch wearing thin on the heels. A thread hangs loose. If I pulled it, would the whole sock unravel?
- Beer, woman. And nuts.
The beer is in the fridge in the garage. I hate going into his garage. The light bulb doesn’t work and the light falling through the open door from the kitchen is thin and grey and only reaches halfway. I creep through the guddle of broken chairs, of rakes and spades and old paint cans, careful not to dislodge anything. They can leave bruises.
In the kitchen, I take a packet of nuts fromn the pantry. I prise the lid off the bottle. Gently, so beer doesn’t foam up and spill over. I flip it into the bin. He shouts from the lounge.
- What’s taking so long? Christ, call yourself a runner.
In the hall, the shoe rack is shoe-shop neat. My running shoes are a beacon of order, heels and toes together, laces threaded through all the eyelets, equal lengths tied in a pristine bow. I never leave them tied.
He is still lying like a fixture on the sofa, eyes fixed on the widescreen. I put the bottle in his outstretched hand. He grabs the peanuts, pours some into his mouth from the packet. Spits them out in a spray.
- These are bloody salted. I told you to get dry roasted.
The third time, we have this conversation.
- Did you go for a run today?
- I had a headache.
You’d think he’d won an Olympic gold, the way his whole body swells, and his face flowers. My stomach unclenches. He doesn’t know. I did go for a run. I found some old garden twine and threaded it through the eyelets, a green link to a snatch of freedom.
- A headache doesn’t get you off cooking dinner.
- What do you want?
I peel potatoes, slice them into chips. I chop red onions and fry them into crisp, battered rings, the way he likes them. I flame-cook the steak.
He hurls the plate against the wall.
- These bloody onions are raw
Food slides down the wall, huddles in a heap at the skirting board. Steak juice drips tears I won’t cry. He doesn’t realise I am an onion. He sees the surface - crisp, brittle skin, easy to tear and rip. He doesn’t understand layers. Each separate skin may be fragile, transparent, gossamer-thin. Together, they are opaque, sinewy. I won’t let him see my eyes sting and smart.
In the morning, I run. I run in the rain. My pony tail bounces, a wet rope drumming between my shoulder blades. I run on hard, wet pavements, my shoes a percussion beat, a cymbal hiss. The rain stops. I run between trees, feet dancing and dodging. The green twine snaps. I walk home barefoot.
The neighbour stands at her mailbox.
- I haven’t seen you out running for a few days. How are you?
- I'm fine. Busy with. . . stuff.
- How are you really?
She touches her finger to my wrist, where my skin wears a bracelet of bruises, the colour of onion skins.
- I heard things. Last night. Smashing. Shouting.
My tongue is locked. She tucks a business card into the running shoes dangling from my hand by broken green twine. Women’s Refuge, it says. And a phone number.
- I can help you. You know where I am, she says.
I hide the card inside a sanitary towel packet. He’ll never look there. I don’t know why I keep it. I don’t need help. I am an onion.
But it isn’t only shoe laces. He is a kaleidoscope of malice. I unpack groceries, put a new bar of soap in the bathroom, a new lightbulb in the garage, and fill his beer fridge. When he showers, he complains there is no soap in the soap tray. I fetch him another fresh bar. At dinner, he demands a beer. I fetch him a bottle from the garage, picking my way to the fridge. The new bulb is a scatter of glass shards on the concrete floor. When I drop the beer cap in the bin, I see a smooth yellow curve of Imperial Leather poking out through vegetable peelings and biscuit wrappers.
I put my house key in the bowl on the hall table when I come home. It disappears. He won’t get a new one cut.
- You’re so bloody careless. Just find it.
When I go for a run, I climb out of the kitchen window. My laces don't disappear now he thinks I can’t go out.
He has names for me. Crazy. Slut.
He brings me flowers.
- I’m sorry if I’ve been a grouch. Work is stressing me out.
- A grouch?
I whisper. The word tastes yellow, like a wax crayon a child would use to draw a fat sun.
- Don’t make me say it twice. I’m really trying here.
- Thank you for the flowers.
- That’s better. Now kiss me.
He throws the flowers on the table. Throws me on the sofa, pushes my t-shirt up, my pants down.
- No, no.
- Wrong answer. You really should be more careful, you know.
He licks his fingertip and traces across my body, a dot-to-dot of bruises. I close my eyes and think of running. Bare feet, slapping on cool earth. Loose hair, flapping. Wind sings in the leaves. I’ll be safe here.
He zips himself up.
- That will have put a kid in your belly. About time.
This is the conversation I have with him now
I clean the house, make dinner, and fetch beer. In bed, I spread my legs and lie mute. When he sleeps, I slip out of bed, wrap myself in my dressing gown and stand at the window, watching streetlights through glass smeared with rain.
- I am an onion.
What else can I be?
I find the key when I’m dusting, tucked behind a picture on the same nail. I squirrel it away in the sanitary towel packet, with the card. The card is creased, curling at the edges. I recite the number. I might need help.
My stomach starts to spill over my waistband. He grabs a handful, kneading his fingers like I’m a piece of clay he’s sculpting.
- My son.
The ultrasound says it’s a girl. I watch him - his icicle eyes, his flared nostrils. He double checks.
- Are you sure?
- You made a useless effing girl.
He drags me to the garage. I try to run, trip on a paint can and slam into the concrete floor. He grabs a spade.
The baby leaks out of me in red tears.
He doesn’t realise I am a rain gauge. Every rainfall, water creeps up, until all it can do is spill over.
I knock on the neighbour’s door.
- Please could I use your phone?
My fingers know the number. The neighbour says she'll drive me to the shelter. She waits in her car on the street.
He is at work. I pack a bag, and pull the front-door shut, a black full-stop. I thread a shoelace through my key, tie a pristine bow, and drop it in his mailbox.
by Lucy Hodgson
Unburdened by history, Fiona does a quick reconnaissance of her mother-in-law’s house, shifting memorabilia out of children’s reach.
Granny Kay sits with arthritic fingers restless on her knees, watching her daughter-in-law move a lifetime of collections with a carelessness that frightens her. She remains silent, knowing Fiona’s casual handling is safer than the random acts of her two grandchildren.
Fiona says, “This house is too big for you.”
Kay sighs with the frustration of facing another pointless argument about her future. “Let’s go outside,” she says, reaching for her walking stick.
She wants to protect the mementos of her life for as long as possible. They could be gone with one careless flick from a small hand that’s still learning how to be graceful.
“We’ll all get covered in biddy-bids.” Fiona’s haunted eyes and set mouth add silently, I can’t do everything.
“Come on Fi,” her husband, Simon, cajoles. “Let’s go for a walk on the beach.”
Kay blames herself for Simon’s lack of assertiveness. As her middle child, neither leader nor follower, he learned how to stay out of the limelight. He finds life easier if he doesn’t upset anyone.
“You know your mother can’t walk in soft sand until she gets her hip replacement.”
The unnecessary concern irritates Kay. It makes her more determined to go for a walk.
“I’ll help you, Gra’ma,” pipes in her youngest grandchild.
Kay smiles fondly at Terri. She promises to be a lovely child, while her older brother, Caleb, is already showing signs of adolescent self-importance. Kay hopes she can live long enough to protect Terri from the casual negligence of teenage boys.
Pushing herself upright from her chair, leaning on her stick, Kay knows how to get her grandson interested in a walk. “Go get the cricket bat and ball, Caleb. Then, I can sit on the special chair you made me and watch you play. You’re such a good bowler.”
It’s a short walk through the garden that Kay and her darling husband coaxed out of salt scrub beside the wild beach. The rugged beauty of the coast has started to attract tourists looking for somewhere different from well-known beaches.
Kay remembers it as the ends of the earth when she was a new bride, arriving at a cottage by the sea. Eventually the salt had etched into her skin and she’d fallen into the rhythm of the tides. The feel and taste of sand came to define her days.
Since her husband passed, there are documents to say she owns this land, but she knows paper will turn to dust. It will join the bones of prehistoric animals that crawled out of the ocean onto this shore; or the dark blood of ancient warriors, spilled into the footsteps of pale-skinned opportunists.
Ahead of the group on the track, Caleb makes grand swinging actions with the cricket bat while his father, Simon, tosses the ball from hand to hand. Fiona chases them, waving a tube of sunscreen.
Kay allows Terri to believe that her small hand on the walking stick is helping. Glad of a moment to spend with her granddaughter, she points with her spare hand in the direction of a profusion of greenery growing over a corner of the garden. “That’s Marigold’s Ivy.”
“It’s a weed.” Fiona says over her shoulder. “Needs clearing up.”
Kay wants to shake her stick at Fiona. Elderly people and infants deserve the respect of good manners, same as everyone else.
“It’s Marigold’s Ivy,” she corrects her daughter-in-law. “You know she gave me that cutting to grow over the old pit after we got the new plumbing installed.”
Terri asks, “Was that where you and Granddad went to the toilet, outside?”
“Yes, dear. It was a shed. We didn’t squat on the ground.”
You can’t be serious, says Terri’s wide eyes with a twist of her lips.
Kay is used to that look when she tells stories about the long-drop toilet, and no electricity in the house. A time when a small transistor radio was the only daily connection to the outside world is beyond a child’s ability to imagine.
Fiona grabs Terri’s arms to smear them with sunscreen. “Why would you give somebody a weed?”
“We were grateful for anything that would grow in this sandy soil.”
“Who’s Marigold?” Terri asks through a face traumatised by her mother’s vigorous application of sticky white cream.
“Marigold was my bridesmaid.”
“Where is she now?”
“The cancer got her. She passed.” The weight of mortality settles into the fine morning.
Fiona shoos the spectre way. “She’s with Granddad in heaven now.”
The shadow passes over Terri, and her eyes shine again. It reminds Kay how a child’s vital energy is fed by a mother’s limited supply. She forgives Fiona’s style of parenting.
Kay wants Terri to understand how her Grandma used to be strong and vital but lived in a different world to the one she knows. That world comes alive for Kay when she tends Marigold’s Ivy.
Caleb leads the group from the garden track onto a stretch of glistening pale sand. He gives a cursory glance at the driftwood chair, built by him and his dad for Grandma in the shade of an old Pohutukawa tree. Terri clears twigs and leaves off the seat. Fiona pulls a cushion out of her voluminous bag, and they settle Kay onto her throne.
The beach cricket match begins with some argument, settles into determination, and then breaks into laughter. A gentle breeze cools Kay’s arthritic joints and stirs her skirt to caress the leathery skin of her legs. She is Queen of her domain.
Then, a tourist van pulls into the unpaved carpark beside the Pohutukawa tree. First to disembark is a young lady with glossy black hair and almond eyes set in a china doll face. She turns to assist the other passengers step down onto the packed sand of the carpark.
The group hovers around her, trying to find the momentum to escape the gravitational pull of security offered by the van. Finally, a cumbersome man, with two cameras dangling from straps around his neck, steps with surprising agility over a rope barrier.
The tour leader’s voice rings out with a strong American accent, “Stay on this side of the barriers, please. They’re protecting the sand dunes.”
“Der are no signz,” the man replies with German inflection, flinging each leg back over the rope with the grace of a dancing elephant. Kay wonders what protection a single strand of rope can provide against the next storm.
A Canada Goose, followed by two fluffy goslings, waddles across the dunes. Terri notices the baby geese and abandons her fielding position to join the bird watchers.
Fiona trails after her. “Invaders taking photographs of invaders,” she scoffs and takes Terri’s hand to lead her back to the cricket game.
“But they’re so cute,” wails Terri.
“They’re a pest, introduced to New Zealand to give men something to shoot at.” Fiona ignores Terri’s look of confusion.
Kay says, “I used to have a pet goose called Jemima.”
“But Jemima was a duck.” Terri knows all the Beatrix Potter fairy tales.
Kay nods without speaking. She doesn’t want Terri to ask what happened to the goose.
As the tourists find courage to explore, they walk down the beach awkwardly in their town shoes. Kay sees no fun in skimming over a country on a veneer of information. She wants to know a place by planting her feet in the soil, allowing time to produce the results of a labour of love.
Caleb is getting restless. There’s no challenge in a match he knows his father is allowing him to win. Kay wishes she’d taught Simon to stand up for himself and deal with his disgruntled pre-teenager.
“What’s for lunch?” Caleb asks.
“It’s too early to eat,” says Fiona. “I know! Let’s help Grandma tidy up that patch of ivy in the garden.”
The look on Caleb’s face reflects Kay’s feelings; annoyance mixed with resignation. A lethargy pushes her back into the bony branches of her chair. Simon steps forward to help her stand.
“I know it’s a weed,” she says, “but it was precious to us when we were starting our garden. Can’t we leave it as an historic site?”
“Yes, it’s Marigold’s Ivy, Mum.” Terri runs beside her mother, looking up into her face, but Fiona is striding ahead to the track through the garden to the cottage.
Then she turns. With a hand on Terri’s shoulder she says to Kay, “We can transplant it to a pot on the veranda. It’ll be easier to manage, and we’ll find something better to replace it.”
Simon adds, “The council is giving away free native plants to encourage dune regeneration.”
Kay leans on Simon, feeling the needles of age puncture her energy. “Alright,” she sighs. “Can you take a photograph for me. I want to remember it like it is.”
by Tom Adams
It began in the long days of childhood, when summer holidays stretched ahead of us into eternity. First came a few planks, carried by Dylan’s thick farmer’s arms. Next came a pallet I found behind the dairy, then a dirty tarpaulin stolen from Dylan’s dad’s shed. Jimi’s parents gifted us with a nearly-new stove from one of their latest rental properties, and then more wood, great arm-loads of wood. In a short space of time our den became a house became a castle, a hidden fortress high upon the crown of the hill. We were labourers, we were entrepreneurs, we were kings upon our domain. Who would have thought that of those three boys, one would grow up to be a murderer?
“Just carry the goddam wood, Dylan.”
Short, chubby, and always impeccably dressed, Jimi came from the rich part of the hill. Dylan was the opposite; tall and broad shouldered even in his early teens, he kept his mouth shut and did what he was told. He lived with his perpetually-fighting parents in a valley that saw sunlight for three months of the year. I was the middleman. I could speak up to Jimi but mostly wouldn’t. I could carry as much as Dylan but mostly didn’t. Looking back, I wish I had done more.
At the bottom of the hill, where Dylan lived, a foamy creek oozed through toetoe and traffic cones. A road tracked alongside, and next to a mud-pit of a dog-park another branched off, zigzagging its way up the hill. Five corners up that road was my house; a square weatherboard box with a flat roof and a feijoa fenceline – if the northerly winds didn’t get them first. Five corners further was Jimi’s mansion, soaking up its harbour view through its broad north-facing windows. From there the road took one last reckless hairpin before ending in a shock of gnarled pines, curled over by the prevailing wind. Gangs of restless kaka would swoop through the trees by day, taunting dog-walkers with mischievous cries. At night a morepork stood guard as the fat moon filtered through crooked branches. It was there, deep between those meandering trunks, that Jimi, Dylan and I built our den.
Throughout school Jimi had loved the internet, and was in his final year when he created The People’s Pōneke, one of the first community news sites. Content could be posted by anyone. It might be an accident on the motorway, or a cat that looked like a celebrity. It was Amazing One-Day Deals! or the location of a police breath-test unit. Everything was published and Jimi could raise or lower each post in prominence. Like an exclamation-filled offer from a car dealer around the time he bought a new set of wheels, or when The People reported a storm rolling into the airport, which coincided with Jimi treating his girlfriend to flights to Melbourne, bought for a snip on standby.
Dylan was less lucky. On the way back from a family outing their old Commodore was struck by a logging truck. Both parents died at the scene, probably still cursing each other in their final breaths. Dylan survived with severe brain damage and was put into a CYFS house, to relive his parents’ arguments with his flatmates.
My life was more ordinary. I finished school and got a job shuffling paper for the local council. I admired Jimi’s high-rolling lifestyle, but knew that was never right for me. He would take me for lavish lunches and preen on about his website, the deals he was doing, and how he was ‘helping out’ in the local elections. Often I told him I was worried about Dylan, who had taken to hanging around the streets around his Kilbirnie flat, and was referring to himself in the third person. I recounted one meeting:
“How are you today Dylan?”
“Mister Tall has lots of fun today.”
“That’s great. What did you do?”
“Mister Tall not say.”
Jimi said Dylan’s carer would know what to do. I told him a mutual friend had complained about Dylan loitering outside her daughter’s school, and while it was surely innocent, he needed something to occupy his time. Jimi told me not to worry, but if I got any really good dirt I should make sure I told him first. In the months after that Jimi became more distant. He started a degree in e-commerce, then dropped out, then seemed to move in ever-growing circles that didn’t include me. Meanwhile Dylan was often out when I called, and gradually my visits became less frequent there too.
When the schoolgirl disappeared I saw it first on The People. Rebecca McKinley was her name, and she had disappeared from a school near Dylan’s flat. There was a chance he might have seen something so I went to pay him a visit. When he didn’t answer the door I let myself in. The curtains were drawn and a festering pizza box filled the room with a cheesy mushroom aroma. He was playing computer games.
“Hey Dylan. Up to much?”
“Mister Tall is busy today.”
“I’m sorry. Mind if I join you?”
I scanned the room as I sat next to my childhood friend, immersed in his game. There were towers of unwashed crockery in the sink, and layers of laundry smothered a tilting rack. There was also a series of photographs, half folded and strewn across the floor.
“Whose are the photos Dylan?”
“Mister Tall’s photos.”
“Can I look?”
“No. Mister Tall’s.”
I stood up, making for the photographs. Dylan lunged after me, but tripped on a leg of the clothes rack sending damp socks flying. I unfolded the crumpled paper. Rebecca’s face looked back at me, but without the same radiant smile I saw on The People. In this picture she looked terrified. Behind her were the shadowy shapes of wind-ravaged trees; trees that I recognised immediately.
It had been nearly ten years since I had last stood on top of that hill, but I remembered exactly where to go. I ducked under low branches, breathing in the heavy scent of mulch and the sharp tang of pine. The trees were taller, the den more dilapidated, but otherwise it was the same. I thought once again about calling the police, but was stopped by the risk that I was wrong. I wasn’t sure Dylan’s mental state could survive a false accusation like that.
I scanned the area with my torch, stopping on a pile of fresh dirt, then setting the light on the ground as I began to dig with my hands. A thread of blonde wrapped around my fingers, quickly leading to more hair, to a scalp, and finally to the blank eyes and purpling face of Rebecca McKinley, only a few days dead.
Time seemed to stop, and then accelerate rapidly. The police arrived within minutes of my call, sirens weaving up the zigzag road. Moments later I was at the station giving my statement, then watching Dylan brought in with his big hands cuffed behind his back.
The next day the police called me back to the station. Dylan had said little apart from “Mister Tall killed girl,” and insisting to speak to me. They sent me into the interrogation cell alone, assuring me that officers were watching and could storm in if required.
“How are you doing, Dylan?”
Dylan stared down at the grey desk between us, saying nothing.
“Why did you do it Dylan?”
“You know, Dylan. Why did you kill that girl?”
“Mister Tall kill girl! Covered girl’s mouth, she screamed and screamed.”
“Why did she scream Dylan? Why go to our old den?”
“Den safe. Remembers good times. Mister Tall go to den lots.”
“What good times Dylan?”
“Safe times. Good friends. Before Mister Tall got so mean.”
“I don’t think you’re mean, Dylan. Tell me exactly what happened, and maybe the police won’t think you’re mean either.”
Dylan cocked his head. “Mister Tall mean. All that money make Mister Tall mean.”
When the police raided Jimi’s apartment he was out, but they were able to seize his laptop. Using it they found a series of encrypted gateways beneath The People, leading to a sizeable collection of child pornography. Jimi’s connections were able to get him a lot more than just cheap flights, it seemed. He knew when every child’s party was happening, and how to divert the public eye. Then he would send dutiful Dylan out to collect information. After that I didn’t want to know.
The police conducted a thorough forensic examination of our old den, collecting enough evidence to put Jimi away for a long time. As soon as they had finished Dylan and I returned to our childhood haunt. We returned with hammers and axes, the same tools as many years before, but this time we returned to smash that shelter to pieces.
by Sue England
My desperate purchase arrived in the mail, discreet as promised. My signature, badly written using my index finger on a plastic screen, guaranteed safe delivery and the mailman departed satisfied with a job well done.
I am meticulous by nature. I placed the package on the kitchen table and took my time preparing a cup of coffee, freshly ground beans, milk warmed to ninety degrees and frothed, no fancy syrups. Coffee beside me, I sat in front of the parcel absorbing its dimensions, impressed by the perfection of the brown paper wrapping, and then slowly and carefully proceeded to unravel several yards of sticky tape. Inside was a black, plastic bag with a set of rules.
Rules dictate my life. I’m a clerk; I work for the Ministry where accuracy is imperative. No impetuous leaps for me, I need to know what I’m doing before doing it and this momentous occasion was no different. I sipped and savoured my coffee whilst reading the booklet, nodding and murmuring understanding until finally I was ready. I knew what to do and I did it.
Inside the black, plastic bag, folded and contorted into an indeterminate shape, lay Annabel. It took me less than ten minutes to restore the flesh-coloured plastic into a life-size woman, a woman with blonde hair, blue vacant eyes and the hint of an enigmatic smile. Hardly Mona Lisa but beautiful nonetheless. She was naked. I didn’t see that as a problem but decided Annabel might prefer some daytime dress wear. I would call in at the charity shop after work on Monday and purchase some sexually neutral items so as not to arouse suspicion. In the meantime, we had a weekend ahead to acquaint ourselves and for me to adjust to life as a couple.
Mother had always held me back. Her own fears of the big, wide, scary world were cast onto my shoulders making me timid, shy and cautious. Mummy’s boy. I was never encouraged to challenge myself and never did. If I’d been gifted dashing good looks life might have been very different, but sadly I inherited the worst of both my parents. I now find myself a balding thirty something, average height, lacking in musculature, teeth that deserve a makeover, but the cost is astronomic on clerical wages, and facial features that are decidedly insignificant. Apart from my scar. I’m quite proud of my scar running as it does from just above my left eyebrow to my temple. I like to imagine its origin was of a more rugged nature than the reality where I stumbled over Mother’s pouffe and hit my head on the arm of the sofa.
My work is repetitive and detailed; I’m good at it. In fact without wishing to boast, I’m not a boastful person, I have an exemplary record and excellent work ethic. I’m the only man in an open plan office that I share with fifteen ladies most of whom are younger than myself. And all of whom are lackadaisical with their daily allotted tasks. They like to gossip and they like to snigger at my expense. I am the butt of many of their jokes, the Fair Isle tank tops, the bow tie for the Queen’s birthday, but despite all that, I am very fond of the girls and somehow, the work always gets completed.
There have been many times that I have gazed over the assemblage of blondes, brunettes, the lovely red-headed Mary-Joanne, and dreamed of being their escort. A girlfriend on my arm no less, outings to a restaurant, a movie, the theatre, but not one of them would have given me a second glance. In truth, I was too nervous to ask and feared the humiliation of rejection and further teasing. But it matters no longer for I have Annabel. Annabel, my stay-at-home girlfriend who now shares my joys and my woes…and my bed....without care or comment.
My new, though secret, existence must have had an effect on my demeanor, (a spring in my step, an upright air of confidence and charm?), for the girls noticed a change.
‘Gordon, you seem happy today. Good weekend?’
‘Thank you, Janelle, indeed I did and thank you for asking.’
‘Gordon, you seem to have grown, not on steroids are you?’
‘Tina, would I?’ and we all laughed together.
I still observe the girls and notice the easy hugs, the pecks on cheeks, mwah, mwah, the casual familiarity and I take this knowledge home with me to practise with Annabel. I discover how pleasant it is to share a hug with no strings attached, how lovely to be in the arms of another person, kiss their cheeks, stroke their hair. I am learning how to behave as a boyfriend and I rather like it.
Christmas is around the corner and with it comes the office party. I always make excuses and this year will be no exception. Annabel can’t come with me so I would prefer to spend my time with her at home. We can have our own party. I will lash out on some mince pies and a decent bottle of sherry. Yes, we can make our own fun.
If I was of a religious bent I would have acknowledged advent, the Christian festival leading up to Christmas. The girls were certainly building up to a seasonal frenzy and the office was taking on the appearance of Santa’s grotto. But the start of December was entirely memorable for another reason, what I now think of as Black Tuesday. It started out in usual fashion, me diligently bent to the task of creating meaningful statistics, the girls comparing notes on whatever it is that girls talk about. And then there was the slam of a door and a frightening, hushed silence.
Miss Jenner-Jones, always remember the hyphen, is our office manager. She has her own room and under normal circumstances leaves us to our own devices. As long as the return is sat on her desk by the end of the week she remains aloof and satisfied. Black Tuesday moved us into uncharted territory and along with the fifteen girls I stood cowed and cowering by my workstation. Miss Jenner-Jones was venting her spleen. There had been a gross error, a serious miscalculation that had not only jeopardized the weekly statistical sheet but also, seemingly, our very existence. What would the Minister say?
‘I will get to the bottom of this,’ she bellowed, ‘someone has let the side down with their negligent disregard. Whoever did this,’ and here she shook the sheets of incriminating paper in our direction with considerable vigour, ‘please confess now and accept the consequences.’
We cringed en masse. I looked around the room and noted some bowed heads, some red faces and considerable trepidation. My suspicions led to Mary-Joanne, ditsy and dizzy but rather sweet. Miss Jenner-Jones would eat her alive.
‘It was I, Miss Jenner-Jones.’
‘Indeed, abject apologies for my seasonal ineptitude.’
No more was said. By anyone. Miss Jenner-Jones returned to her room and we knuckled down in silence for the rest of the day until 5 o’clock ticked around and we were released.
Annabel was sympathetic. I recounted the story in detail as we sat at the dining table eating a sausage supper before adjourning to the sofa and some light entertainment. And then the doorbell rang. No-one ever visits me, ever. Goodness, what to do? I hastily shunted Annabel into the bedroom before cautiously opening the door to reveal Miss Jenner-Jones. Shock registered on my face.
‘Gordon, may I come in?’
This was beyond my experience. In she came and I seated her on the sofa, offered herbal tea, which she declined, and waited for what I assumed was to be my summary dismissal from the Ministry.
‘Miss Jenner-Jones …’
‘Please, call me Hilary.’
Lordy, Lordy. ‘Hilary …’
‘Gordon, the mistake with this week’s return has been rectified. I know it wasn’t you and I respect your loyalty to the team but …’
‘Hilary, I …’
‘Wait, there is more. As it’s Christmas, we will put the whole incident behind us and trust it never happens again. No, why I’m really here …’
She was suddenly uncharacteristically nervous, a tremor in her voice.
‘Gordon, I wondered if you would care to accompany me to the office party, perhaps a beverage beforehand at a local hostelry?’
‘Miss Jenner-Jones, Hilary, a date?’
‘Yes, Gordon, a date. Would you be amenable?’
‘I would be delighted to accompany you, Hilary and I can assure you I will be a very acceptable boyfriend.’
She looked at me slightly askance but we parted with joy in our hearts.
I had to tell Annabel of my unexpected good fortune and I swear she winked at me before I reversed the rules and popped her back into her black, plastic bag.
Red Cars and Rain
by Greg Knowles
People in these parts talk about me. I know what they say, “He’s the crazy who lives in the decrepit farmhouse halfway up the 309 Road. The crazy who spends his days leaning on the old fence post giving the evil eye to everyone who drives by. The old guy who mutters to himself and throws stones at cars; only red ones, mind you. It would be better for everybody if he was locked up.”
A red car means it’s going to rain. My Nan taught me that. We don’t see many cars this far out from town. So few that, whenever she saw a plume of dust rising through the trees, Nan would stop, put her hand up to shade her eyes, and look down through the tangle of flax that lined the driveway, waiting for a momentary glimpse of the vehicle as it flashed through the gap down by the gate.
Most times she’d say nothing as its flickering tail lights slowed for the bend before accelerating away. If it was red, however, she’d immediately spin around and focus her gaze skywards over the hills that dwarfed our valley.
“Red car, Tane,” she’d call out. “Did you see the red car? Gonna rain for sure.”
And she was right. Sometimes, within an hour or two, clouds would appear, poking their heads over the hills, light and friendly at first but soon turning dark and ominous, sucking the warmth from the valley and emptying themselves upon us. Other times, we’d have to wait longer. Up to two weeks, maybe even a month. One dry summer, we waited almost two months; but one thing was certain, once that red car cruised past, it was only a matter of time.
One time I asked Nan, “How come red cars?” I’m not sure what explanation I was expecting. Maybe magic, maybe science, perhaps an ancient legend of our people. “Well, boy,” Nan sighed, “That’s the way it’s always been, right back to when this road opened. The very first car to come along here was a red one and, woo-wee, did it rain. That very night. Washed the brand-new bridge clean away. Washed half the bottom paddock away too. Took three of our best cows with it. Would have taken your Koro too if he hadn’t of grabbed hold of that old puriri down there. He wrapped his arms ‘round one of them branches and hung on tight for two whole days. Don’t look at me like that, boy; it was two whole days he and that tree fought with this here stream. All I could do was watch. When it got dark, I sat right there on the porch and called out to him every hour or so, just to make sure he was still there.
“Then, on the second morning, the rain stopped, the sun came up over those hills, and there he was asleep on the branch that had saved him. Once the water level dropped, he was so high up in that tree, I had to fetch the big ladder so he could climb back down.”
Koro was a carver – that’s how I learned – a real craftsman and a great teacher. Some of my favourite memories are of him and me going wood hunting in the bush up the back of our place. Wood hunting is what he called collecting branches fit for whakairo, carving. “Tane! Get you gear, boy. We’re going on a wood hunt,” he’d shout as he headed to the shed to fetch the chainsaw. I’d run for my boots and Nan would prepare us sandwiches.
He knew just the right pieces of wood to collect. Sometimes, we’d be walking through the bush and he’d stop dead in his tracks so that I almost walked into the back of him. He’d turn to me and put his finger to his lips. “Shh. Look. That branch is perfect. It’s special, Tane. It’s been waiting a long time for you to release its mana.” He’d cut down that branch, wrap it in a piece of sackcloth, and give it to me as if it was the most precious thing in the world.
On the way back, we’d stop at a sheltered part of the creek where the water is shallow and slow, and where we kept our eeling spears – really just a couple of tea tree poles, each with a long nail taped to its end. We’d catch a few eels for Nan to smoke when we got home. It wasn’t until I was about 14 and started to go into the bush on my own that I discovered, for all the walking we did, Koro and me had never wandered more than about half a kilometre from home.
In the days that followed a successful wood hunt, we’d carve all sorts of shapes. We always had a few projects on the go. Some were for the tourists. We’d sell those at The Art Shack, the art collective in town. They were simple toi whakairo patterns that looked nice but had no real meaning. Tourists don’t care about the story inside the carvings they buy. All that matters to them is whether it’s gonna look good when they get back home and it’s hanging on their apartment wall.
Other carvings were our way to kōerero; to share our journey. Koro would tell me stories about our ancestors and where they came from. He was good at telling stories. Then he’d hand me a piece of wood and say, “Carve the story, boy. Carve your story. It’s right there inside that piece of wood calling for you to set it free.” Those carvings were never taken to The Art Shack. They were too personal. They felt tapu, sacred. Most of those we displayed at the marae or gave to whānau.
That all seems a long time ago now. Nan and Koro are both long gone. I scattered their ashes within a month of each other under the old puriri that had once saved Koro’s life. A few days later, I set up a table nearby so I’d be close, and Koro and I could still carve together. When I got stuck on a piece, I’d look into the branches and call out, “Koro, I need some help,” and he always answered.
But that’s all long gone too. Tree, lawn, Nan and Koro, all swept away just three weeks after a red Nissan drove by. Its driver waved out to me, totally unaware of the havoc he was about to unleash. I never waved back. I knew what was coming.
I spent every day after that searching the sky for clouds. I still recall lying in bed the night they finally showed. The sound of thunder, a bass drum to accompany the snare of rain on the tin roof, eventually lulling me into a deep sleep.
The cosy warmth I felt that night was replaced by the stabbing despair of guilt when I woke the next morning and looked outside. While I’d been comfortably sleeping, the creek had grown angry. Turning into a torrent, it had picked up all that remained of Nan and Koro and swept them away. It took the old puriri, and what remained of the bottom paddock too. I salved my conscience by imagining Koro, laughing with delight as he floated downstream; Nan close behind, calling out to him to be careful. But any relief from my shame was short-lived.
As the days passed, I began to think of Nan and Koro and where they were now. Swept out to sea. Koro, far away from the bush and the sanctuary of his workshop. Nan, far away from her house and garden. Far away from me. Torn apart from each other.
Once able to sleep through the wildest storms, my nights were now disturbed by haunting images. I’d see Nan and Koro struggling underwater, seaweed wrapped around their arms and legs, pinning them to the ocean floor. Sometimes they would call each other’s name or, worst of all, they would shout, “Tane!” Most times, however, their voices were silent and it was their eyes that screamed to me; eyes that burned with the agony of those hopelessly trapped in a world that is not their own.
I don’t carve anymore. Without Koro, there are no new stories to guide me. No special branches containing tales pleading to be set free. There is just me and the cars that pass by oblivious to my distress. I stand at the gate waiting for the red ones, because that’s all I have left of Nan and Koro. Sometimes, when I see one, my misery bubbles to the surface and threatens to overwhelm me. I’m compelled to curse them and throw stones. I mean no harm but I can’t help thinking, a red car took Nan and Koro from me, perhaps I can persuade a red car to bring them back.
by Bruce Morrison
“Inexorable,” said Baz, as he, Doug and I ground our way, in single file, up a scorching, scree slope on the north face of the Waiau pass. Perfect, I thought, he’ll get a point for that word, no question about it. I had scored a point a few days previously with ‘sublime’, referring to the view of the top of the South Island from the 1731m summit of Mt Rintoul. It beat Baz’s ‘majestic’ but he had had a good one a few days later with ‘mesmerising’ as we sat by the upper Motueka River waiting for a flash flood to subside. There were other trampers taking part as well. Ahead of us, two fleet footed German women were on the scoreboard for their use of ‘enchanting’ to describe Blue Lake to the north of the pass. I couldn’t be bothered, there and then, trying to remember who was leading the word game. I’d check my notebook for the tally later but now the scree stretched on and up and demanded all my energy.
Despite the effort of keeping traction and momentum on the steepening gradient, my mind drifted back to Baz’s ‘inexorable’. There wouldn’t be a better word for our progress up this slippery slope. It spoke also of the way scree became sand on a beach or how a distant speck at the end of a valley grew, with each step, into a hut. In short, inexorable captured the sine qua non of tramping. I uttered silently each of its syllables in time with my steps and this seemed to give me an extra push. I thought I’d inject onomatopoeia into the inevitable debate at day’s end. These nightly debates, although bearing scant resemblance to Queensbury rules, were sometimes intense but always fun.
The word game had started one evening in a hut some hundred or so kilometres back along the track through the Richmond Ranges. On that occasion Baz had announced to anyone awake or listening that he’d heard enough ‘awesomes’, ‘Oh My Gods’, as well as ‘sweet as’ and ‘like’ as in ‘I was, like, worn out’, to last him forever. This got things going and eventually about six trampers agreed to stop using those particular expressions and any other clichés or profanities. After some discussion, the ‘F’ word was banned despite my wish to have it left in but rationed to one per person per day. To encourage creativity and competition it was decided to award a point for a word or expression which best ‘captured’ an event or situation. Points would be awarded by a simple majority of players. I would keep a tally and we would record results in the hut log books, in the hope of encouraging others to join the game. We didn’t decide on a winning prize then but a generous ‘shout’ from the losers seemed popular. Google, of course was banned, and Baz, trying to steal a march on everyone, had suggested ‘sent to St Helena’ instead of banned. Doug had countered with ‘Alcatrazed’ and in doing so won the first point in the game. I threw in ‘Poreremo’d’ but this had been booed out the door.
At last the scree petered out and, after a short scramble over a boulder fan, we gained the top of the pass. The bush telegraph must’ve been humming because a Dutch couple, sobriquet ‘Cloggers’, who were resting there on their way in the opposite direction, passed on a message from the German women, who were ahead of us, which said the next hut along the track was absolutely ‘sybaritic’. That word raised a few eyebrows and we agreed it would be a winner. The ‘Cloggers’ knew what was going on and said they’d try and start a game with a north bound group.
Sipping a hot brew and resting on a patch of old snow, I looked over the tally in my note book. Smiling, I read about the Angela, from Indianapolis who had scored a point with ‘awe-inspiring’ for the view from Mt Starveall. She had been granted an extra point for showing infinite patience during my discourse on the fate of US Navy battleship which bore her city’s name. Baz had been awarded a point for calling my habit of adding a stone to every cairn I passed, ‘diligent’. I’m sure he’d have preferred ‘futile’ but knowing cairn-building was a popular pastime, reasoned he’d get nowhere with it, even if it was accurate. ‘Visceral’ had got me a point for my reaction on seeing a woman splashing about nude in a river as I crossed over it on a swing bridge. We exchanged waves and greetings. When I submitted the word that night it sparked off a round of stories from men and women of nude tramper encounters, much to everyone’s amusement. Doug’s second point so far was from ‘soporific’, when someone had commented on the monotonous call of a morepork. Not all attempts were successful. Jock, a Scot of course, got nothing for ‘fastidious’ to describe how Amanda, of the fleet footed German duo, put sunscreen on her face. He hadn’t been turned down on semantic grounds rather it was thought he was being cheeky. I had a big asterisk by this because he had appealed and a hearing was to be convened as soon as we met up again. I decided that when the appeal was heard I would change my vote and support him because, after all, it was just a game. Jock hadn’t intended any disrespect and Amanda had laughed and voted in support albeit after she’d consulted her English-German pocket dictionary. Wondering what would come next, I put away my notebook, hoisted my pack and set off downwards.
We edged our way down the south face of the pass heading into the upper Waiau valley. In places, the rock face was sheer and we had to face inwards and go hand over hand. This demanded nerve and concentration. Nevertheless, Doug couldn’t help reminding us that one slip would be all it would take to fall. Baz being Baz had to say;
“You won’t fall you’ll plummet.” And that’s what he did. For about 2 metres landing on his feet on a small ledge and falling backwards onto his pack. Not breathing, we watched him pat himself down and then give us a thumbs up. I had to suppress a laugh when I noticed his face was the colour of the old snow patch he’d just slipped on and his eyes were as big as golf balls. Doug told him stay put while we found a safe way down.
‘You’re a lucky bastard,” said Doug, when we got to him. “We should deduct a point for you thinking we needed a demonstration of plummeting.” All Baz could say was that he wished he was still a smoker. As the impact of his narrow escape kicked in on all of us, I set up my gas cooker to get a brew on. That’s when we discovered that Baz didn’t have the tea from our last resupply back at St Arnaud. He claimed he’d thought Doug was carrying it. I’d opposed the idea of one person carrying the whole stock of any item but this wasn’t the place for an ‘I told you so’. We just stared at him daring him to come up with an epithet. He stayed quiet.
“We should push you over the edge,” said Doug, as I rummaged in my emergency rations and found enough for all of us to have a decent cuppa. We sat there quietly on the hard ledge, in the sun, waiting for the billy to boil. A breeze started to blow up the slope with some strong gusts which kicked up dust and loose stones. Anabatic wind, I thought but kept quiet as I didn’t want spoil anyone’s reverie. We were jolted into the present by the clank of metal on rock and, looking around, I saw our blackened billy lying on its side and rivulets of steaming tea draining into the cracks in the rocks.
“Fuck,” I said.
by Tim Saunders
Frank lay on his side and pulled his knees towards his chest. That was easy. He could do that.
The next bit wasn’t so great. He felt the sharpness, the unnaturalness of it. The prickly stab. He shut his eyes, squeezed them into tight fists. Tried to think of something else. Felt the bite of the fluorescent bulbs through his thin eyelids. Shapes and shadows passed across the light like ghosts and half-remembered dreams.
The doctor’s white coat rustled behind him. Her breath was soft and ruffled his meagre fuzz of hair. Frank would have preferred a man doctor. No. A man would have had bigger fingers. The lady doctor was fine.
Frank started to breathe again when he heard the flaccid slap of the rubber glove in the bin, like a used condom. Now that was something he hadn’t heard for a long time.
He lay there for a while, not daring to move. He listened to the doctor shuffle around the room, waited for her to say something, anything to take the edge off the awkwardness. He was aware that his bum was exposed to the elements.
Frank breathed the quietness of the room, the radio playing out in the reception seeped through the heavy oak door.
Then he was out on the street. He couldn’t remember how he got there. Frank assumed he had said goodbye to the slim-fingered lady doctor and walked out through the reception. He didn’t think he had jumped out the window. He checked for broken bones, just in case.
All he felt was the uncomfortable pain in his arse.
Frank wondered if he should tell Eunice. His wife. Not about the pain in his arse. He wouldn’t tell anyone about the pain in his arse. He figured anyone who saw him walking along the street would be able to tell exactly where the pain was anyway. No, he was thinking about what the doctor had said.
Eunice. His wife. He thought of her as he took his first few tentative steps along the footpath. Every movement carved through him. He looked around to get his bearings. The first house they lived in together after the wedding had been just around the corner from here. It was gone now, a massive Briscoes sprawled over the space where they had lived and loved and where Rebecca had grown up. Rebecca liked to play with her friends in the brown leaves that fell along the footpath from the thick plane trees. They were gone now. The leaves. The kids.
Replaced by a carpark. Kids didn’t need carparks.
He tried to remember what the doctor had said.
“This may be a little uncomfortable.”
That’s what the lady doctor had said.
A little uncomfortable.
She’d had a tattoo of a heart on her wrist. A black heart. He didn’t know if he trusted a doctor with a black heart tattoo. He may have trusted her more if she’d had a tattoo of an arse. It would have shown passion for her work. But a black heart?
It hadn’t been a little uncomfortable at all. A little uncomfortable was sleeping around the cat and waking up with a stiff back. A little uncomfortable was wearing shoes that were too small because Eunice had forgotten his size and bought snazzy new ones, and he hadn’t wanted to upset her by complaining.
That was how it had started. The shoes. He should have twigged it then. The gradual decline.
He remembered the snap of the glove like a gunshot over raupo.
“More tests,” the lady doctor had said. “We’ll need to run a few more tests. Have you got any friends or family you can talk to?”
He had plenty of friends he could talk to. They were all in one place these days. Russell Street Cemetery. And the bonus was they didn’t speak back. Or interrupt. Shouts at the pub were a lot cheaper than they used to be.
Frank wondered if he should tell Eunice about the tests. Maybe he shouldn’t worry her.
The Briscoes loomed beside him as he walked past. Its light blue signage took the sharp edges off the grey concrete blocks. Rubbish gathered along the gutters. Chippie packets and bottles. Frank had seen a programme on the telly the night before about all of the plastic choking the ocean. He wondered how it could be such a problem out at sea when all the plastic in the world seemed to be here in the carpark.
He watched an old supermarket bag blow up the street towards him. It snaked along the ground, fat and filled with warm air, narrowly missed his stiff legs before going wherever the wind wanted it to go. Not something you saw much anymore, plastic supermarket bags. Funny how some people held onto things, only to watch them blow away.
They had called him one Tuesday afternoon. The Briscoes people. Asked him if Eunice was his wife. The manager was waiting with a uniformed security guard by the automatic doors when Frank arrived, Eunice was sitting on a wicker chair that had been reduced from $150 to $99.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” she’d said. Her eyes were wide as moons, her skin pale, the colour of uncarved bone. “Tell them we live here, Frank. This is our house.”
Frank hadn’t known what to say. The manager was only a kid, large dark shadows fanned out from under his arms and stained his light blue polo shirt. He looked like he was going to cry.
“She assaulted our security guard,” he said.
Frank looked across at the large man in the uniform. The only thing that could have assaulted the guard was a combine harvester.
“She’s just a little confused,” replied Frank. “Aren’t you, dear?”
“We’ll have to fill out a trespass order,” said the boy.
Frank had argued, told the boy he’d known his grandfather. Old Trevor Williamson. They’d played bowls together. What would he think of his grandson banning a little old lady from shopping?
The security man had marched them both through the door, people had stared at them as though they were shoplifters. Eunice started to cry. They shuffled through the carpark.
“I love the way the sun filters through the bare branches,” said Eunice. The trees had already been removed.
Frank remembered this as he limped past the store along the barren street, stepping into the cold shade while the complicated clouds argued with the sun. He’d told old Trevor all about it the next time he had visited the cemetery. Trevor didn’t reply, so Frank left the weeds that pushed up around his headstone.
Frank explained the Briscoes drama over the phone to Rebecca. They still used phones because he hadn’t got his head around this computer video calling thing yet. He talked to the grandkids first, their English accents always surprised him. And Carl was snowed under with work, she couldn’t possibly come over now.
“That’s alright, hon. We’ll work it out.”
The pain in Frank’s arse ebbed and flowed. He wondered why. Why did he have a pain in his arse? Maybe he should ask Eunice when he got home. He wondered if Rebecca was home from school.
“More tests.” That’s what the doctor had said to Eunice. “We’ll need to do more tests. There’s no way of knowing the severity of it. Memory loss. Confusion. I can’t tell you how fast it will happen. Sometimes it is quite a slow slide. There are drugs that can slow the symptoms, and of course there is support available.”
The doctor handed Frank a brochure. A brochure. Like he was going on holiday. He hugged Eunice when they got back to the car, they stayed twisted like the branches of an old plain tree for a long time. For ages. Forever.
Frank wandered down Russell Street. He had to keep his legs stiff, move them like he was skiing. He had never been skiing, but he imagined this was what it was like. Except colder. And without the sore arse.
He’d had a lady doctor. With a black heart.
“I’m happy to say there doesn’t appear to be any abnormalities with your prostate,” she had told him.
The dull slap of rubber gloves.
“But I’m worried about your memory loss. The confusion. We need to run a few more tests.”
He stood by the rusty gate of the cemetery, the plastic shopping bag had caught in one of the wrought iron bars that stabbed the ground. Funny how you hold on to things for years, then let them blow away.
He pulled the bag free and thrust it in the pocket of his long coat. It would only end up out in the ocean. It crackled as he walked through the gate.
Eunice was waiting for him.
“They didn’t find anything,” he told her as he pulled the weeds from around her bed.
by Lisa Williams
That was never a thing, Louisa. Mephistopheles wrinkled his nose like he smelled a foul odour. Sell your soul. Ridiculous. For starters, you’d have to have one. And – I’ll let you down easy – you don’t.
I tapped the electronic pen against my front tooth, debating whether to sign on his iPad’s digital dotted line. Could I trust him? The contract seemed straightforward, no ‘devilish’ fine print. Just a simple trade: a decade shaved off my lifespan in exchange for the ability to fly.
I’d turned fifty the day before. My birthday candle blow-out wish was more a plea for help. I wanted a little adventure. The wild outer limits of my existence consisted of changing the water in the goldfish bowl. Twenty-four hours later Mr M rings the doorbell.
He said yes to a cuppa but turned down the offer of a cheese scone, indicating he preferred his savouries smoked. He tore open a packet of beef jerky with his nicotine-stained teeth. We sat in the sunroom; he scooted his chair into the shade.
He sweetened the deal with a rider that guaranteed no gruesome death. No beheading, no impaling, no car or plane crash, no buried under rubble in an earthquake . . . Hell, he said, I’m behind on my quota for the month, so no cancer, diabetes, emphysema, heart failure, motor neurone or MS.
Dementia? I asked. I sign this today, I could get early-onset tomorrow.
Fuck sake. No dementia. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his bespoke grey suit. His crow’s feet and thinning red hair suggested he was around forty-five, but what did age mean when you’re an immortal minion of Satan?
And I’ll live into my eighties?
It was your eighties before. Now it’s your seventies.
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. The clock on the wall spit seconds at us.
Okay . . . late seventies, he growled.
Deal! I scrawled my e-signature across the glass. He countersigned, promised to email me a copy and slipped the iPad into his briefcase.
That’s it? I said, no. . . ?
No, what? You want me to disappear in a puff of smoke?
Well, yeah. Moments like this deserve a little spectacle.
Crazy ad. Died out in the Middle Ages. He jangled his car keys. I’m parked over a yellow line. I could get towed.
Maybe the fine print I missed on the contract was that there was no fine print – no instructions anywhere about how to fly. Incantations weren’t the answer – Abracadabra didn’t earn me jackshit of air time. Even when I hollered it while leaping from the fourth step of my staircase.
I bought binoculars and studied the birds. My god, the sparrows! Flinging themselves off tree branches like Lilliputian daredevils. And the grace of blackbirds – floating upward to perch as if pulled by an invisible string. How do you do it? I asked them more than once. Sure, their architecture contributed – all those feathers and feather-light bones – but it didn’t solve the mystery. Birds flew because they’d been let in on a secret. A secret I couldn’t decipher.
Until, months later, a seagull at Pt Chev Beach spilled the beans. Surfing the wind, it executed lazy figure eights, occasionally flicking its wings to adjust the glide. Bird and breeze, breeze and bird. Where did one start and the other stop? The question cracked my brain open. Where did any of it – birds, wind, leaves, trees, sand, dogs, swimmers, waves, boats, me – where did any of us begin and end?
I gave up trying to fly. Propped up on my elbows, I laid on the deck and watched the hibiscus’ blossoms unfurl. That elegant spin-open into a bloom. Let go and bloom, I whispered to myself. Let. Go.
Just last week I saw Mephistopheles again. A sunny day after a wet winter; everyone outside soaking up rays. Except for this bloke on a bench, cramming himself into a handkerchief’s breadth of shadow. Who else could it be?
Nine years later and he looked the same. Except he’d had his teeth whitened, and was holding an e-cigarette in his hand.
Well? he patted the bench, inviting me to sit down.
If you’re expecting to find I’m a tormented soul, you’re going to be disappointed.
What did I tell you about having a soul?
You know what I mean. You’re hoping I regret the deal, miserable that I’ll come to the end of my days sooner than necessary.
He vaped. You’re not?
I fluttered my arms like they were seagull wings. When I fly at night, I said, I can hear the stars singing as they swirl through the heavens.
A smile shoved aside the creases around his lips. Who said the Devil’s not in the business of making people happy?
And then he disappeared in a puff of smoke.
by Sue Kingham
Banks Peninsular, 2019
Where shall I go? I pull my ponytail tight as I stare across the glassy bay. How about over to thatyacht; the one past the island? The weather report looks wrong again. So much for squally showers. That water’s as smooth as anoaky chardonnay.
I walk down from my parents’ holiday cottage to the boat shed. Inside, the paddleboards rest against one wall. I drag out the one with the seat attachment. I like the stability of sitting. With all this uncertainty at work, the last thing I want is to be wobbling abouton the water.
I nip back to the shed tograb the life jacket and discover Mike still hasn’t returned it. I boot a stone off the path and curse my brother. Sod it—I’ll go anyway. After five days at work, my stiff body is craving exercise.
Crunching down the pebbles to the water in bare feet hurts like hell, but what makes me swear is the icy shock when I wade in. Strands of black seaweed stick to my legs. I flick them off, then float the board and adjust the seat. As I sit, it wobbles. I change position and secure the ankle leash. Grabbing the paddle in both hands, I dig the blade into the water and push away from the shore.
Overhead, a lone gull lets out a shrill cry. Can’t I even get some peace here? Wilson was pestering me all day about the job. Jen, I need your answer by Monday.
What with Mum saying I’m too risk-averse, and Dad telling me Guangzhou’s too far away, what should I say?
The water’s choppy. Two yellow buoys bob to my right; spray flecks my sunglasses. If it weren’t for the blue overalls hanging on that washing line, I’d swear nobody else was in the bay. Perhaps someone just forgot them—I haven’t seen another soul.
I should have arrived earlier; the sun’s almost gone.
Fucking Wilson! Did he need those stats today? As if he’s going to pore over them all weekend. Then again, he probably will, the sad loser.
That yacht’s getting closer.
I bet it’s someone’s dream. What on earth do I want? When I was a kid, I thought to be happy at my age all I’d need wasa well-paid job, a husband, two kids and a dog. One out of five—fucking great.
The wind knocks me sideways.
I roll my shoulders, then pull harder on the blades to get back on course.
Answer the question—do I want to take the job? Some risk-analyst I am. Why is this decision so difficult? Setting up the Guangzhou office would be a stretch, but why shouldn’t I do it? I shift on the board and chew my lip. My father’s voice echoes in my mind: Face it, you’d be in too deep.Would the Chinese even accept a woman in that spot? Now if Mike was offered the job.
Why did Dad say that? Mike would be clueless.
I look up. Black clouds are rolling in from the mouth of the harbour.
Shit, maybe the forecast was right. I should head back but the yacht’s right there. I want to reach it.
I put my head down and press on. When I hear the clicks from rigging hitting the mast, I look up again.
It’s a tidy yacht. I like the colour—white with a thick turquoise line around the deck. Through the window, I can see a cereal bowl and dish cloth on the table. Did the owners leave in a hurry? I smile when I read the brass letters on the wooden plaque attached to the cabin: SERENITY.
Out here it’s anything but serene. A wave rolls over my legs and then another smacks my board. In an instant, I’m off and under.
The air rushes from my lungs. The water’s in my ears, nose, and my sunnies have gone. Fuck!
Another wave slams me hard against the side of the yacht.
Adrenaline shoots through me. I force myself up, gulping and thrashing.I tug on the leash and the paddleboard slams into me. I drag myself on to it. Standing, I stretch across and push away from the yacht’s hull. Shit, the paddle’s the wrong length now, but I’m not going to sit—if I do, I could end up back in the drink.
The sky’s like a dark blanket sagging over the bay.
Inside my head, I hear Mum’s voice: Jen’s the sensible one—she never takes risks.
I shudder, gulp in air and paddle. It’s difficult to hold this course because it’s been awhile since I paddle-boarded standing and the current’s driving me further out with each stroke. I keep my eyes on the two yellow buoys in the distance.
My teeth begin to chatter. I want to wipe the spray from my face. Why did I have to lose my sunglasses? I can’t afford to stop—the rain will be here at any moment.
The houses along the shore are in darkness. I can just make out the white fence running along the bottom of my parent’s garden. It looks ridiculously far away.
I pull harder and sharp jolts of pain shoot across my shoulders. I try a new position but can’t find relief.
The hill behind the house is suddenly floodlit.Thunder rolls directly overhead.
I flinch. My board wobbles and I’m swept further back.
The hail feels like needles on my arms and shins.
Why didn’t I put on my full-length wetsuit? I squeeze my eyes shut and put my head down.“Shit!”
The sound of the waves slapping against the board drowns out my voice.
I peek and catch another flash of lightning illuminating the shore.
My legs feel like they’re burning. There’s a tingling in my arms. Please God, not a heart attack—don’t let me die out here. If this is the end, have I done everything I wanted? Why do I care so much what my parents think? Mike doesn’t.
In my head, I beat time with each thrust—one-two, one-two. I keep paddling, staying with that rhythm until the fin under the board scrapes on shingle. I stumble off into the surf, but the leash jerks me back. I grab it and pull. Lurching, I drop the paddle.Waves suck it backwards. “Fuck!”
I lunge and manage to retrieve it just in the nick of time. Panting and retching, I drag everything up the shore and drop to my knees. A sudden coughing fit forces me lower. Steadying myself, I take in a lungful of air. I brush seaweed strands off my legs and laugh.
“Risk-averse, am I?”
I whoop and punch the air.
I have the answer.