Winning and Commended Stories from the 2021 Competition
Cause and Consequence
by Heather Holmes
If my great-grandmother hadn’t believed in herbal remedies, the medicine garden would never have been planted.
If she hadn’t spent her winter evenings writing and illustrating her journal, I would never have read it.
If I hadn’t accepted the invitation to the bonfire party I would probably never have met Patrick, and his obsession wouldn’t have ballooned to manic proportions. There would have been no unrequited love, no jealous stalker, no uninvited visitor on my doorstep at all hours, no silent phone calls in the middle of the night, no knife-wielding crazy trying to break into the house, no court case and no need for me to leave Wakefield to start a new life in Wellington, away from him, ten years ago.
If my husband, Luke, hadn’t taken the job at Scott Base I wouldn’t have been on my own over the Christmas holidays.
If I hadn’t applied to join the Oxford University ‘Step Back in Time’ programme, I wouldn’t have been using a landline.
If my mother hadn’t needed a cat-sitter I wouldn’t have returned to Wakefield and Patrick's and my lifepaths would probably have never recrossed.
But all these things did happen.
It flashed up on Facebook. Volunteers wanted for a social experiment. The psychology department of Britain’s prestigious Oxford University was searching the world for people to live a 1920s lifestyle for a month. I had nothing to do until the new school year started, so I applied. Several on-line forms and one Zoom meeting later I was accepted on the trial.
What they wanted was for you to ditch the technology. No cell phones or computers, no social media, no email, no bank cards. Food to be cooked from scratch. Travel to be limited as much as possible. Radio was okay but TV was out. I was to keep a diary of my days and send it to the researchers at the end of the trial. It sounded like a relaxing challenge.
On my last Facetime with Luke I gave him my mother’s landline number.
‘You must ring me,’ I reminded him. ‘My mum can’t afford phone calls to the Antarctic.’
After that I locked my phone, laptop and tablet in a cupboard, filled my purse with cash and flew to sunny Nelson. A chatty taxi driver dropped me at my mother’s front door and my first evening in the 1920s began.
After feeding Edward and Mrs Simpson, my Siamese charges for the next three weeks, I unpacked and then, deprived of Facebook, Instagram or Google for my evening's entertainment, I wandered into the garden.
Planted by my great-grandfather, little had changed over the years. At the front were the flowers. At the back the beds were divided into three: the veggie plot, the kitchen herbs and the medicinal plants.
The delicate perfume of lavender, chamomile and rosemary hung in the warm, evening air, interwoven with the hum of bees. Walking through the greenery I bent and touched a petal here and a green leaf there, crushing them between my fingers and breathing in their scent. It was strangely relaxing to be free of the call of the screen.
When the sun set, I went inside, pulled my great-grandmother’s journal from the bookshelves in the kitchen and settled to read. Each plant, along with its uses, had been lovingly documented and illustrated in watercolour. As a child I had turned the pages with fascination. There were plants to cure headaches, chest infections and twisted joints, nestled between potions to treat broken hearts or attract suitors. Others promised to rid the hands of warts or the home of vermin. It was a cornucopia of ancient knowledge.
My days soon settled into a general routine. I slept late, waking to sunshine on my pillow and the sounds of nature. Surrounded by pasture and built by my great-grandfather, the house stood on a little mound overlooking the village. Through the years the shelterbelt, planted to break the wind and provide shade, had snuggled closer, cutting out the rest of the world even more, but I didn’t miss the company of neighbours. Patrick's single-minded obsession had crushed my trust of strangers.
I read and took walks through the countryside. I reacquainted myself with the special places of my youth: the native bush behind the school, the rotunda on the hill with views across the green, fertile Waimea Plains to the turquoise waters of Nelson Bay.
At dusk, after writing my diary for the researchers in Oxford, I slipped between the sheets and drifted into a dreamless sleep. Free from the demands of the twenty-first century, the long-clenched petals of my soul slowly began to open. It felt good to be home.
After ten days I’d cooked my way through most of my mother’s kitchen supplies and was running dangerously low on cat food, so it was time to briefly rejoin the real world with a trip to the shops.
Reaching the checkout at the 4-Square, I lifted my basket onto the counter and froze. An icy surge of adrenalin stopped and restarted my heart with a body-shaking thump and sent stars flying to my eyes. The trembling of his hands told me his reaction was similar.
‘Isobel …’ he said as I paid, but I couldn’t reply. I had no words for the man who’d turned my teenage life into a living nightmare.
That night the phone rang at 2am and then again an hour later. There was no need to answer. I knew who was on the other end of the line. Who else would ring in the middle of the night?
Pulling the jack from the wall I went back to bed but there was no hope of sleep. My mind was overloaded with a jumble of ten-year-old, tear-streaked memories.
The next evening Patrick was on my doorstep, calling my name and peering through the windows. I watched, shielded by the net curtains, until he left. History was repeating itself with night-time phone calls and unwelcome home visits, but this time I wasn’t a frightened seventeen-year-old. This time I was capable of fighting back.
It took minimal planning; great-granny had done the groundwork. Getting Patrick to play his part was easy. As far as he was concerned, it was a chance meeting on his way home from work. From my point of view, it was baiting the trap.
The rotunda at eight was the chosen time and place to put the past behind us. Arriving early, I was pleased to see it was as deserted as I had hoped. Carefully I laid the picnic on the little table: homemade cake and a flask of coffee, sickly-sweet to hide the bitterness.
Patrick arrived on time, as I knew he would.
‘Thank you for giving me this chance to set things straight,’ he said, flushed and slightly breathless from the climb. ‘I am so sorry. Back then I was obsessed. I couldn’t see that what I was doing was wrong, but now I can. When I knew you were back in the village I wanted to apologise for everything I did. I even came to your place but you were out.’
I raised a hand to stop the flow of lies I didn’t want to hear.
‘It’s time to let go of the past,’ I instructed, cutting the cake into thick slabs. ‘Time to move on.’
‘Thank you,’ he said, taking a seat opposite me. ‘Thank you for forgiving me.’ And then he sealed his fate. He smiled, all straight teeth and dimples. How I hated that face.
‘This looks delicious.’ He pointed to the cake.
‘Take a slice,’ I replied, pouring the coffee. ‘Let’s toast to the future.’
After that we chatted and agreed to go our separate ways with no hard feelings. A peck on the cheek, for old times sake, before we parted.
Back home I rinsed out the coffee flask and flushed the remains of the cake down the toilet. The die was cast.
The news came, via The Nelson Mail, two days later. Patrick had died a painless and peaceful death in his sleep, as my great-grandmother had promised. An undiagnosed heart condition was the main suspect. I celebrated by plugging the phone-jack back into the wall.
Luke rang that afternoon and it was wonderful to hear his voice.
‘Got my telephone times confused last week,’ he said. ‘I had a shift change and down here, in the land of the midnight sun, it’s difficult to tell night from day. Rang you a couple of times in the middle of your night. Hope I didn’t wake you.’
My knees folded and I slid down the wall until I was a crumpled heap on the floor. Patrick had been telling the truth. Only I knew what a terrible mistake I had made. Now I had to live with the consequences of murder.
by Dick Ward
Misses Straker sez just rite it down like it sownds and she will put in the puncheration and the CAPITAL LETTERS. Thats the big letters and dots and the dots with tails that cum after sum of the wirds. She sez there called kommers. She sez its not my falt I cant rede or rite proply. She sez Im disletic but that’s stupid. Thats just posh for saying I cant rite. Misses Straker is teeching me. She sez I shood rite everything down about Lilly so people no my side.
Sometimes I look out the windo at the birds flying. They can go where they want. I wish I cood fly and go where I want. But when it gets frosty and snos and I cant hardly see thru the ice on the glass then Im sorry for the birds becos they cant get food. Id give them some of mine but I cant open the windo. Misses Straker sez its becos the people in charj are worrid I mite do sumthing.
Lilly wos mi friend at school. She didn’t laugh becos I coodnt spel. She liked me becos she sed my name wos like hers and becos I like birds. I told her I go to the quorry to see the herons, so she asked if she cood cum. The first time she caim she wos scaired.
Dont go near the edge. You mite fall and brake your neck she sed. Lilly told me she wos scaired of hites.
Wuns I sor a program on the tv about eegles. I told Lilly I wished I wos an eagle. Lilly said she wood be a sparro becos she wos little and cheeky. She wos pretty but she had a temper so even Tommy didnt pick on her. He left me alone when Lilly wos with me but kept picking on me after scool and hitting me when Lilly wosnt there. I used to run and hide but my mum said I wos bigger an him so I wos stupid to run. She sed I shood hit him back. But I didn’t becos Lilly sed not to wen I told her about it. She sed it wos stupid to fite but she went up to Tommy at scool the next day and told him off in front of evrywun. Lilly wos like that. She wosnt afraid of no wun.
But wun day Lilly didn’t cum to scool and Tommy started larfing and calling me the c word. My mum hit me wen I used the c word. Its bad. I told Tommy it wos bad but he just larfed and said I wos a stupid ugly jiant.
Im not a jiant. But Im bigger an Tommy and wen he sed Lilly wos stupid for being mi frend and I wos a baby for hiding behind her skirt I didnt no what he ment. Im to big to hide behind Lillys skirt but then he sed Lilly wos a stupid c word and he hit me. I membered what Lilly sed so I didnt hit him back. But he kept hitting me and I forgot what Lilly sed and membered what my mum sed insted. He shouldnt of sed those things about Lilly so I hit him. When I hit him he looked suprised and picked up a stick.
Im going to kill you he sed. Thats what my mum sed when I did sumthing wrong.
Im going to kill you you stupid lump she wood say and hit me with a stick and I wood be scaired. But its rong to hit girls and yor mum so I didnt do nuffing. But wen Tommy sed Im going to kill you I got scaired becos I membered when my mum used to say that and hit me with a stick. But Tommys not a girl so I hit him again as hard as I cood. He fell over and didn’t get up.
You broke my effin arm. Don’t come near me. I’ll get you he sed.
Tommy didn’t come to scool for a week after that but the cops caim to see me and told me if I hit anywun again I wood be in big trouble.
Lilly caim back to scool. She sed she had been sick but new what Id dun. She sed it wos bad of me to hit Tommy so hard. I told her what he sed but I didnt use the c word I just told her he used a bad word.
Im sorry Lilly. But he shoodnt of said those things.
She sed promise me you wont do it again. Now lets go to the quorry. Ive got a secret to tell you.
When we got there it wos raning so the path wos very slippy. I told Lilly to be cairful.
Whats your secret Lilly?
Ive told people Im going away. Its sort of true but I want you to no the trooth. Im ill. The doctor says I mite die.
NO! Yor my only friend. You cant die.
I wos angry with Lilly but I wos sad to. I started to cry then I herd someone larfing. It wos Tommy. He had folloed us.
You wont have Lillys skirt to hide behind wen she goes away. Cry baby, you stupid c word.
Dont say that I yelled and ran at him and started hitting him.
Billy stop that! You promised me.
Lilly got in front of me but I didnt see her becos I wos crying as I kept hitting Tommy. But I hit Lilly by mistake. She gave a sort of moan and fell over and rolled down the bank but she didn’t try and stop herself.
LILLY LOOKOUT! Its danjrous.
Lilly always sed we mustn’t go near the edge becos its danjrous but I looked anyway.
Lilly wos in a heep but her hed looked funny.
Tommy ran away but I wos still there when the cops caim.
Tommy told the cops I wos hitting him then I hit Lilly. Lilly had told me telling lies wos bad so I said yes when they asked me if I had hit Tommy and Lilly.
I don’t mind being here becos no one larfs at me. But I wish they wood open the windo so I cood feed the sparros.
One of them mite be Lilly.
God of the Sea
by Molly Crighton
September 6th – We have seen the sea in its calmest and in its fury, and we must acknowledge the wonderful works of God, for what man can set a boundary to this expanse of water?
Excerpt from the 1809 diary of John King, one of the first Christian missionaries to New Zealand.
You come from over the waters like a new and living promise. You are the word made flesh – you are the mouth made man. Gulls squall their rubbery language and the ocean glitters like rippling scales. You think back to being five, acting out Moses parting the waters to a cohort of ruddy relatives. Your mother, buckled and bristling in her new sage-green dress, pulling out a swathe of blue silk and billowing it in the air, letting it catch and bulge like liquid. This will do for the water, she had said. This will part nicely.
A silver fish flickers beneath the waves and you picture it multiplying, becoming a school, a bestiary – a moving feast. You will feed every strange mouth in this new land, you think – you will bring the words that will make them clean: Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
This will do for his staff, said your mother, and dislodged an axe from the shed. She put it into your hands and your memory is faulty, it was so long ago, but you swear the wood writhed, serpentine, between your palms.
On the tenth day at sea the cook dies and is given a water burial: we therefore commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body. Your voice wraps around the deck like a thick black snake and the cook drops like a stone or a man in a noose. The sky overhead is blue and heavy with charging lightening, backlight-glowing. In your diary you have started counting the numbers of dead among the sheep and pigs. On the back page now you make a slow, black mark for the numbers of dead men. You could hope that the mark remains solitary. You could hope that no one else will die. You could.
You stay awake long after the others have retreated into the darkness below deck. You watch the sky shake out like shining foil, glittering like the sea if all the salt turned into light. If the cook is resurrected in his body you picture him shaking back to life like some pale deep-sea creature, blind-eyed and albino from the darkness, lungs full of salt so he glows from within.
On the twenty-seventh day a plague of locusts descends upon the ship. They are thick-bodied, thudding into the wooden mast like a head beaten again and again upon dry earth. A day of clouds and blackness, you think. There is a crack in the boards above you – you look up and the sky is bristling with bodies like shrunken angels. They are four-winged – shelled and skeletal, terrible with eyes. In the heat’s delirium you hear them saying in their voice of many voices a mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come.
Someone brings a dead locust below deck and its iridescence seems to take light like a black nebula, like a hole or a pit in the sky. You hold out your hand for it. You are struck by the sickening thought that you could touch it to your lips like a burning ember, leave your mouth a nest of singing scabs, melodising repentance. The thought makes you laugh. The laugh makes you hurt.
These will do for the Egyptians, says the voice of your mother, and in your mind she raises her arms to the sky as above her it blackens with thousands of shivering bodies.
Some weeks after this you cross the line of the equator, and one of the sailors dresses up as Old Neptune, the God of the sea. He glints in the sunlight, and in the years to come your memory will colour him in swathes of cardinal and purple, whirling around the passengers like a frenzied dervish. He laughs belly-deep and the long shadows of seabirds flicker his face in and out of sunlight.
The sailors he heals with his hands. The emigrants – dirty, weary, teeth aching – he christens with salt water. He glitters in the sun like Egyptian chariots swallowed by the Red Sea, still drifting in the black deep in all their finery, bejewelled and perfectly preserved. You wonder if their white eyes look up to the shapes of circling sharks and mistake them for descending angels.
Later that night you stand in the darkness watching Saint Elmo’s Fire flicker in the sky above you. You are an educated man – you know that colour and glory are themselves children of science, which is a creation of God. You know something explicable happens in the air above; something measurable.
But still – you feel salt crusting dry on your forehead like a mirror of the stars overhead, and you think what man, small as a toy on black water and dwarfed infinitely, would not look to the cosmic brain above and forget where it ends and he begins?
You are nearing the end of your journey. You know this means you are nearing the beginning of your journey. A great white cloud like a cotton curtain coils along the skin of the sea, Mount Egmont tipping above it like a crystalline promise. You are put in mind of speaking pillars, rippling columns, impossible vastness. From this cloud comes not a sublime voice, but the rubbery twanging of new birds: a Babel of their songs.
You are standing at the prow and you feel the insistent press of children at the backs of your knees as they flock to see their new land. You rest your hands on their heads and see again your mother, smiling down at you from her green height, a yellow bowl like a concave sun held between her hands.
This will do for God, she had said, balancing it on the windowsill where it pooled with sunlight like a bowl full of fire.
Too Old for the Park
by Lilla Csorgo
Brad, as always, can hear the additional ‘a’. As always, he ignores its source: Darren, an oversized twelve-year-old with a perpetually aggrieved air. Instead, Brad wonders how he ended up the father of someone else’s kids.
They’re in the playground. They come every Saturday. Amanda, his wife, insists it’s every second Saturday since they – always ‘they’, not ‘she’ – only have the kids every second weekend, and it wasn’t even every second Saturday because they do other things. Like drive the kids to swimming.
Brad looks at Darren lumbering from one set of monkey bars to the other, unwilling – incapable even – of using them in their intended way. Instead he’ll end up sitting at the bottom of the slide, obstructing its use.
‘Darren, don’t sit on the bottom of the slide.’
Darren doesn’t look up even though he was just calling Brad. Brad’s okay with that. ‘It’s how we communicate,’ he once told Amanda.
Darren goes up to the slide’s end, pauses, and then gives it a solid kick. He doesn’t, however, sit. Brad has a smug moment. Who says he doesn’t know anything about parenting? With Darren, the key is to admonish him before he does the wrong thing – or, in Amanda’s parlance, doesn’t make the best choice – so he has time to pretend he’s just doing what he always intended. Darren gives the slide another kick.
Darren is too old for the park, but Brad doesn’t have any better ideas. Amanda is at yoga for some ‘me’ time, and Brad has been tasked with driving Caitlyn, Darren’s younger sister, to ballet. In what Amanda saw – still sees – as an organisational feat, Darren is supposed to be at taekwondo, and Brad is supposed to be showing his mate who’s the boss on the squash court. All in the same sporting complex, all at the same time.
Darren and Brad both knew the taekwondo thing was never going to happen.
Brad had tried to think of a way of telling Amanda. ‘I did try,’ he now tells himself as he sits on the park bench engaged in one of his many imaginary conversations with his wife. ‘I asked whether you had asked Darren whether he wanted to do taekwondo.’
In these imaginary conversations, all of Brad’s ‘I told you so’s’ end up with Amanda saying, ‘I know, hon, you did tell me so.’
‘I’d suggested that he would perhaps be more suited to, I don’t know, T-ball or bowling. And you said, “Those are old man sports. My son is not playing an old man sport. Besides, taekwondo is at the same time as ballet.” As if you were the one doing the driving.’
Brad knows this last bit is a mistake, even in an imaginary conversation.
With a grunt, he looks up from the phone he isn’t reading. Darren is sitting on the bottom of the slide. Brad thinks about giving him a hard time but doesn’t bother. One of those mothers hovering around their playground-age-appropriate kids is bound to. Thinking of this incenses Brad: can’t they leave him alone? Can’t they see he’s useless?
The fact that Darren doesn’t go to taekwondo is their little secret. It’s the one thing that bonds them.
‘It’s the one thing that bonds us,’ Brad says out loud in Darren’s direction but not loud enough for Darren to hear. Or so Brad assumes. Darren doesn’t look up and Brad nods his head: ‘Yup, we’re all good, little buddy. I’ve got this.’
Brad realizes he’s being ridiculous. That he should tell Amanda that the sensei – only they don’t call them that in taekwondo – pulled him aside after the third class and said that he might want to consider putting his ‘son’ into something else. That Darren had learned ‘basic stance,’ which, from what Brad can tell, is just standing, in the first class and then spent the remainder of the following lessons in that position (which, Brad thinks, looking at Darren sitting on the slide, was more exercise than he’s getting at the park). He should tell Amanda that Darren would like bowling, that he’s good at it, that bowling can be surprisingly athletic. He should tell Amanda that he wouldn’t mind his views being considered, at least once in a while.
He hasn’t done any of those things. Brad knows that he should ask himself why. He knows that he’ll be in more trouble than Darren when – because it’s inevitable – Amanda finds out that he and Darren have been going to the park. He knows that he won’t be able to explain himself, but all he can think of, now that Darren has stopped yelling his name, is ‘give the kid a break.’ It can’t be easy being Amanda’s son.
What he normally thinks is, ‘If he were my kid’ – by which Brad isn’t sure he means biological or that Darren had spent those crucial early formative years with Brad rather than his good-natured but lazy-assed father – but, regardless, if he were Brad’s, ‘he would be different.’ By different, Brad means better. By better, he means more like him – motivated, disciplined. Spirited, he now thinks. This is a new word for the list. Brad feels pleased with it.
It’s not the kid’s fault, Brad now thinks magnanimously. For starters, who names their kid Darren? It’s such an accountant name. Brad nods. He’s being generous. Amanda’s first husband – Darren’s father – is a book-keeper, which is like an accountant who didn’t go to school. Geoff – with a ‘G’ as if that made it classy – offers his services to small businesses, mostly panel beaters and electricians. They like Geoff even though Brad is convinced that Geoff couldn’t possibly know what he’s doing. But in that type of work, it’s all about relationships. Until you fail your tax audit. And sometimes even then. Then it’s all about ‘sticking it to the man’. Brad doesn’t get why the government, an elected body after all, is called ‘the man’. That and big business. He also doesn’t get why the blue-collar types take to Geoff. All that ‘hey, bro, how’s it going?’ back-slapping that Geoff does. Why doesn’t everyone find that annoying?
The blue-collar respectability of Geoff’s clients rubs off on Amanda’s ex in a way that Brad secretly admires and, if he’s being particularly truthful with himself, envies. Brad takes the train into the city and sells shit, although it’s called marketing. But at least as a guy in marketing, he knows that Darren is not a cool name.
Brad, without the extra ‘a’, is a cool name. Amanda and her ex managed to do better choosing Caitlyn, but then so did half the other parents who send their nine-year-olds to ballet.
He should really take Darren bowling. That would show Amanda. Have Darren become some sort of bowling league champion. He bets Darren’s dad would also be impressed. Guys like him must know people who bowl.
Holy shit, kid, ‘What?’
‘Isn’t it time to pick Caitlyn up?’
Brad doesn’t bother looking at his phone. He knows the kid has an uncanny sense of timing. Probably sits there counting Mississippis until it’s time to go.
A mum holding the hand of her too-old-to-have-his-hand-held kid at the top of the slide opens her mouth to say something. Brad glares at her. ‘Christ,’ he thinks, ‘let the kid sit.’
‘Yeah, you’re right, Darren. Time to go,’ says Brad, staring down the mum. ‘And you know what? Next time let’s go bowling.’
Living with Mister P
by Sue England
He was never invited. He just arrived unannounced and ingratiated himself into our household. As Princess Diana would have said, there were three in our marriage, a bizarre and reluctant ménage à trois.
Now, with the passage of ten or so years, he has beaten me. Mister P is the winner. He has taken my home, my body and my mind but he will never claim my soul. That is for someone else entirely different.
Back in the heady days when retired life seemed straightforward, aimlessly purposeful and very pleasant, Sonya and I muddled through our days interspersed with coffee, conversation and the occasional foray to the supermarket. Mister P had arrived but his presence was at a subconscious level. He did not yet have a name. He wasn’t a threat. But somehow there he was every time I gazed at myself in the mirror. I pretended not to notice. Just me being an old man fooled by the vagaries of an overactive imagination. Dust motes, dappled light, ghostly whispers. As I shaved away my greying stubble I was persuaded that all I needed was an eye test. Yes, the optician would provide an answer.
But he didn’t. My eyes were fine. So I could no longer ignore the tremble in my chin, the uncontrolled but intermittent wobble that posed a slight problem if soup was on the menu. Sonya had noticed it too. I tried to laugh it off, ancient muscles misbehaving, but she persuaded me to see my doctor, put both our minds at rest.
The doctor lived up to his title, general practitioner. He was charming, caring but had no answer other than an inkling that he didn’t wish to share. Beyond the remit. His answer was to refer me onwards to a neurologist.
‘It might be a few months before you get an appointment, unless you would like to pay.’
It would please Sonya, and I must confess the chin tremble was becoming an embarrassing nuisance.
Denise Prasad was half Indian, half Irish, a combination that made her both alluring and charming and I warmed to her immediately. I succumbed to her barrage of tests and constant chatter, the latter designed to relax me into a state of trust and near oblivion. Too easy to forget that my hour-long appointment with her was a medical necessity and not just two friends enjoying each other’s company and passing the time of day.
She concluded her examination by asking me about my sleep patterns.
‘Gold medal standard, I’ve always been a good sleeper.’
‘Any twitching, jerking, nightmares?’
‘Well yes, now you come to mention it. Sonya would know better than me. I sleep through everything.’
Denise explained her findings with words I didn’t comprehend. Big words, medical words, words to try to remember to feed later to Doctor Google. Fundoscopy, synkinesis, bradykinesia, cogwheel rigidity. But then the inescapable moment arrived that I did understand all too well.
‘Duncan, I believe you have early onset Parkinson’s disease.’
He had arrived; Mister P was no longer a vague suspicion but a permanent reality. Life would never be the same again.
Is it a cliché to describe my interaction with Mister P as a battle? Engagement, maybe, and he was certainly the superior warrior with devious skills, relentless attacks at unexpected targets. All I had to offer was an obdurate nature and a determination to maximise all remaining quality time with Sonya. We both understood the ultimate result. It was just a matter of when. In the meantime Sonya acted as a passive referee, blowing the whistle occasionally to call time out. She could see I needed to rest and sent me to my room to lie down. I had become the obedient child. The whistle was blown with increasing frequency as the seasons came and went until it was no longer necessary; I knew I needed to sleep and sleep I did. Ten, sometimes eleven hours at night, at least a couple more during the day. Mister P was draining my resources.
His attacks were below the belt, literally and figuratively. If Sonya thought that I was masturbating in the small hours, she never said. The bed covers shaking in sync with my shaking hand. She is a good woman.
There were days when every part of my being seemed to tremble uncontrollably; arms and legs flaying, facial tics. He even used my tongue as target practice leaving me gibbering with tears of frustration. But I was smart too, and found tactics to combat the onslaught.
‘Calm, Duncan, calm. Breathe and relax. Focus your thoughts.’
It did work; I could stop the trembling and felt foolishly smug at the inches gained.
‘That’ll show you, Mister P.’
But he moved up a notch and then there was no answer. He started to attack my mind.
It is all too easy to make excuses, to pretend that your forgetfulness is merely a product old age. It happens to everyone. The struggle to recall a name, the baffling array of buttons on the TV remote control, the loss of spectacles, pens, shirts.
But the assault escalated. Mister P would stand beside me, a laughing adversary as I puzzled over where I was and what I should be doing. In my lucid moments, and there were some still, I hated him. I hated the pain on Sonya’s face. Why me? I would ask. Why did you have to come and visit me? My mood would swing like a pendulum, a see-saw of conflicting emotions, me sat on one end and Mister P gloating on the other.
Drugs were prescribed, a medley of pink and green and white. Sonya took charge. I couldn’t remember what, when, how many, but they had the desired effect of leaving me dozy and compliant. I retreated more and more into my shell, bewildered by everyone and everything around me. Mister P had me totally wrapped in his blanket.
Mother, ever the one for a pithy saying, ‘I told you there would be days like these; worse things happen at sea.’ And she was she was right. There could be worse outcomes than allowing Mister P to lead me by the hand to stay in a new home, where kind people in green tunics tended to my every need and kept me safe behind locked doors.
And Sonya rightly said farewell to the pair of us and started on her solitary road to recovery.
by Juliana Feaver
It’s too early to turn in and too late to eat. After the day I’ve had, there’s only one thing to do. I toss the coin: heads the local, tails the new bar in town. Local it is. The Beemer’s jammed between a squad car and a tatty Ute. I breathe in and slither onto black leather. Orange streaks flash across a bruised sky as I wind the Bose loud enough to do permanent damage.
I swing past home and park up the drive. Flatmate, Nat, is away on assignment and by the tone of her emails my rent is propping up her shopping expeditions. What is it with me and women? I consider staying in and cracking open the bottle of Nat’s emergency red but only sad, lonely geezers, sit at home slugging back the booze with only the TV and a head full of shit for company.
As I walk to the pub, I try to remember if Tuesday is karaoke night. Thankfully not. A small group of cardigan wearers are in the corner huddled around the log burner discussing climate change. The booths are filled with bored couples on date night and at the far end of the bar two blokes discuss the intricacies of fly fishing and the best way to smoke trout.
I order a double, single malt, neat. The first sip lingers in my mouth, warm and sharp.
‘Hey, Barney, how was your day?’ asks Greg, the barman.
A botched undercover drug deal and lack of evidence see scum walk free, no viable leads on any of the open cases clogging my desk and we’re two officers down with food poisoning – dodgy cafeteria chicken. Not for the first time today, I toss around the idea of a career change. It’s a shame Rutherford split the atom, that’d be something I’d be interested in. The phone rings. It’s the ex-wife, I switch it off, a nasty divorce has stripped me down to the undies, there is nothing more to give or say.
I finish my drink, then nod to Greg and open a tab. The only thing found at the bottom of a glass is a sore head and a crook gut. I don’t care. At least feeling that is better than the numbness of failure. Freedom should feel better than this.
Glen Campbell sings about the Wichita Lineman. The loneliness and yearning of the words are threatening to derail me when she walks out of the Ladies. Medium height, fit. Past child bearing, pre-pension, perfect age. She sits at a table away from the others. An outdoorsy jacket is flung over the back of her seat and she’s studying her nearly empty glass of tomato juice. There is something familiar about her. I try to work out how, where, why as she downs the drink and heads for the bar and pulls up alongside me.
‘Are my clothes inside out or something?’ She’s looking towards Greg and waving her glass. No rings. When I don’t answer she turns and hooks me with a challenging glare. ‘I asked you a question.’
I shrug my shoulders and feign bewilderment. ‘They look okay to me.’
Greg turns up and she asks for a Bloody Mary, without the vodka. I offer to pay. The least I can do, considering. When I suggest that she might like to add the vodka she turns, holds out her hand for me to shake.
‘Hello. My name is Sue-Ann and I’m an alcoholic. Tomato juice, a dash of lemon and tobasco sauce is my poison of choice these days.’
‘Barney,’ I say, swinging around on the stool to face her, bluey green eyes, world weary. I take the outstretched hand. A good solid handshake, cold hands, rough. ‘You don’t look like a Sue-Ann.’
‘What should a Sue-Ann look like?’
‘Blonde plaits, a check shirt tied at the waist, skin tight jeans, cowboy boots, southern accent.’
‘Stick to your day job.’
‘Now there’s a coincidence. I was just thinking it was time for a change of direction.’
‘No joking. Suggest you cross fashion stylist off your list.’
‘That’s a pity,’ I say, puppy eyes, downturned mouth. ‘It was up there.’
She picks up her drink. ‘Cheers.’ She turns and goes back to her table.
Greg gives me a refill and a rueful smile. Fresh from the womb, what would he know about life? I pick up my glass, head to the jukebox and read through the selection. She’s not my typical type. I don’t even fancy her. Besides, the last thing I need is to hook up with another cranky woman with a smart mouth.
‘Mind if I join you?’ I ask, placing my hand on the spare chair at her table.
‘Looks like you already have.’
I flop into the chair as Jethro shares his prophecies.
‘That’s an interesting choice of music.’
‘I seek spiritual guidance from the Tull.’
I lean back in the chair, tap my feet to the music, sip whiskey, and enjoy the moment. Sue-Ann looks over the rim of her glass at me as she drinks her bloody-shame. The pub’s a strange place to find an alcoholic. I reckon she must have nerves of steel or be hankering for a crash.
‘So Barney,’ she says, when the music stops, ‘how do you fill your day?’
She takes her time. I settle back into the chair and watch her studying me. There’s an edge to the look, ironic, murky.
‘Real Estate agent?’
God help us. I shake my head, disappointed.
When she laughs I lean forward, lower my voice and say, ‘Detective Inspector O’Sullivan at your service.’
Her eyes blink, nothing more than an eyelid flutter. A tiny slip. ‘That’s a surprise.’
‘How about you, Sue-Ann, what keeps you busy?
‘I’ve just arrived in town.’ She places a finger on her lip. Thinks about how much she should tell me. ‘I’m staying at the bed and breakfast at the end of the street. When I booked in the owner told me he was desperate for a cleaner. We’ve done a deal. I start in the morning.’
Sue-Ann drowns the last of her drink and when I offer to buy her another reveals there is only so much tomato juice she can handle. I suggest coffee.
‘Thanks for the offer, Barney, but it’s been a long day and I’ve an early start in the morning.’ She gets up, wraps herself in the outdoorsy jacket and slings her bag across her body. ‘Keep up the good work,’ she says, half smile, leaves.
I finish my drink, muse. She uses a false name, stays at a cheap B&B, accepts piecemeal work and not keen on fraternising with the force. Sue-Ann has something to hide.
When I settle up with Greg he asks if my friend has gone. He’s clutching a Westpac bank card. ‘She left this.’
‘No worries,’ I say holding out my hand. ‘I’m seeing her later. I’ll give it to her.’
I check the name: S. Brown, maybe she was telling the truth. I slip the card into my wallet and head outside to a skinny moon and a smattering of stars. My white breath hangs in the blackness and the cold air stings my face. When I swing past the B&B, a two storey weatherboard place built in the forties, it’s in darkness. I decide to pop back first thing in the morning on my way to the station.
At home I drink Nat’s emergency bottle of red and watch an omnibus of Only Fools and Horses. I fall asleep on the sofa, wake-up smashed and arrive at the station late. By lunch I’m starving so head out and order a double, double cheese burger combo and extra fries. I pull out Sue-Ann’s bank card and curse goldfish memory.
Back at my desk I call the B&B to hear that Sue-Ann’s working so leave a message. I’ll deliver the card the on my way home. Then spend the rest of lunch following a hunch.
Susan Ann Brown. Acrimonious split after twenty years of marriage. Husband Barry, long time player, sends Susan overseas for a holiday and moves in a much younger girlfriend. On her return, Susan finds her car filled with her clothes and a message that she’s locked out of home. She drowns sorrows then sets fire to the family home. Found guilty of arson, she spends three years drying out in the slammer. No surprise she made herself scarce last night.
I back the Beemer out of the carpark, slot in my favourite CD and crank up the volume. Sunglasses on against the dying sun a fireball low in the sky. Hit the road with my foot hard to the floor. I try not to think about my three failed marriages. The last thing I need is another cranky woman with a smart mouth. The B&B comes into sight as Locomotive Breath brushes my skin, Jethro’s dire warnings lost.
‘How Can I Help You?’
by Edna Heled
‘It is getting completely out of hand, Mamma is pregnant again!’
Her fingers are purple. Sweat drips on the keyboard. What is hidden behind the keys scares her more than a knock on the door at three in the morning, more than an old man in the park wearing a long unbuttoned coat.
Two hours till deadline. It's now or never. She knows that crossing this hurdle will free her, but can she really brave the two-hour ride? Sentences will come out jumbled, with no logic. Her choice – let the fingers type of their own accord on a wave of unconscious vomit or stop it right now, right now! Stop the tremor that is giving birth to words. Stop the words due to be emailed to the editor in two hours, never to be erased.
‘She can't do this to us, we have to get a break! She pops them out and then it's big sisters' job to deal with the shit, nappies and all. She is not managing babies anymore, can't even breastfeed. I bet her milk turned black, like she is.’
‘Like the weather of this country. Not even a real summer. Ethiopia is a real summer, but here? It's like . . . when it's just getting warm new storms are waiting around the corner ready to attack. And then it's winter all over again. This New Sealan . . . And this Mamma of ours . . . Like having two winters in one year’.
If she stops now, she will never again dare to write it. It had already happened once before, with that arrogant colleague Maria. She was so ready to confront her, prepared to say things to her face and then, there she was, crossing the street coming straight towards her with a sweet smile:
‘So what are you going to talk about at our editorial meeting tomorrow?’
But no, she couldn't say it. She couldn’t speak up. The word drilled a hole in her brain but she could not spit it out.
‘Oh, I don't know. I'll think of something.’
And she never spoke.
‘How can I help you?’
When I open my eyes in the middle of the night the bedroom ceiling is covered with glow worms. When I read my book in bed, sometimes a cursor appears.
S o m e o n e h e r e i s l o s i n g h e r m i n d !!!!
There will be consequences, she is putting herself at risk. This is not the style of story she usually publishes. People know her pen name, they will recognize her, they will know who she is writing about.
They all witnessed how she lost her mind before, saw her when she collapsed.
Can she continue?
‘How can I help you?’
My life is a pile of notes. I don't know who I am. I want to be seen, seen for who I am. Can you see me? Can you help me see who I am?
Unchained objects. That day back there in Addis Ababa when she fell on the pavement and her purse opened. Within seconds the whole street was around her, lifting her up, laughing with her while stuffing back piles of notes, stained pieces of paper, unsharpened pencils. Her purse here is still crammed with notes, along with business cards, bank statements, billing letters, a mobile phone, a Swiss army knife. Somewhere in the notes is her real life. She can't amputate herself. But now there are times she longs for an uncontrolled fire that will destroy everything and leave her naked.
‘How can I help you?’
I am knitting a blanket for my best friend's older boy, he is leaving home. I have friends in the land of the sun, you know.
One hour twenty minutes. Come now, don’t start to be nostalgic. Unleash! Write her, write her exactly the way it was, no prettying. Write her without fear.
Here we go:
‘Do you see Mamma? Already standing outside that door for ten minutes and still can't bring herself to knock? She’s got a new outfit. Flowery. Bought it last week on sale, waited a long long time for the price to go down, months. Now she's checking again that her shirt is fitting nicely into the skirt. I'm sure she bought them just for visiting this neighbour. Why is she so afraid of her?’
Swiss knife. Here is the place.
‘Oh look, look, Mamma is finally knocking on the door! Shall we hide away? This neighbour better not see us, she does not like us, I think, she doesn't get big families with so many children.’
‘No, shoosh! I want to hear what they say.’
‘I am scared. Mamma is not herself, she is strange. What's going to happen once the neighbour opens the door? Mamma's eyes are burning . . . Oh no! The neighbour has opened her door and Mamma is still just talking to herself and the neighbour's just staring at her. She can't understand, mamma's talking in Amharic. Why is she so strange? What is she going to do to the neighbour?’
Yes, what is she going to do?
‘How can I help you?’
‘No, lady. Too late. You can't help me. Just like you can’t help my best friend Inna who lived here for five years before me.’
‘How can I help you?’
‘How can you help me? Help? This 'help' of yours killed Inna, and you didn't even know. First time she came to visit you with a plate of her best home baked biscuits, you opened the door and asked just like now: 'How can I help you?' She was so happy! 'My neighbour offered me help before I even introduced myself!' Inna wrote to me that day. After two days she looked out her window, saw the biscuits in what she later learned was a compost bin. She was so ashamed, thought she had made a horrible mistake being unfamiliar with the foreign ingredients. Then her letters changed. She described how she knocked on your door time and time again with fruit or pastries. Every time you opened the door you only had one thing to say to her: 'How can I help you?' 'How can I help you?' 'HOW CAN I HELP YOU?'
See, she was naive, she believed what she heard. She asked: 'Please, can you help me with these forms? Can you help me make a phone call, can you advise me where to find this shop, that office?’ Inna did not understand your refusals, your rejection. You said you wanted to help! She took it literally, how was she to know it meant 'you intruder, don't come bother me’? She became confused and hurt, wrote to tell me how she would go back to her room and cry for hours. Then she got worse. Much worse.
How could you help her? What did you know about her? What do you know about us? We never close our doors in Ethiopia, you know? We leave them open for everyone to come and go. Like a family. We open our doors and we open our hearts. But here? You’d rather bake a cake without sugar than ask your neighbour for half a cup of sugar.
No, you are not like us and you don't have to be like us, you don't even have to accept us, but why make a joke of us? Why shame us by offering “help” when all you really want to say is “get out of my sight”?’
Is she getting the message across? Must be more angry.
‘How can I help you?’
‘Your cold “help”, sterile “help”, superior “help”. Inna could not handle it. But I won't let you do the same to me. I‘m going to get inside your house, something she did not manage to do all those years and now won't ever be able to. But I can!’
How? The knife? Get it out of the pocket, stick it in her belly? Push it hard, turn it round and round, wash her hands with the blood for the whole neighbourhood to see?
Can shame do that?
No. She can't! She can't!!!! She can't write her doing that.
She may be losing the plot.
‘ I am afraid. Mamma is speaking in Amharic for too long, the neighbour is making an angry face, she does not understand what Mamma wants from her. I don’t understand either!’
‘Wait! Mamma is speaking English now. Can you hear?’
‘Oh, hello. I just want to say hello. I am the new neighbour, came seven months ago to live in the house where Inna lived before. She was my childhood friend. Please don't push me away. Can I come in? Please?’
‘No, I am sorry. I‘m in the middle of something. Goodbye.’
‘Could you hear what was going on? Mamma is going away crying. What did the neighbour say to her?’
‘Not sure, I couldn't hear very well. I think something like“Dirty, lice, go away. Out.”’
Two minutes. That's it, if she is going to submit it has to be right this minute.
Coward, again? Can't help it.......... Can't help........ Can....?
The Golem Father
by Emma Neale
Tommo shambles into the kitchen, bored and thirsty after a cushion-fight his sister begged him for. He thinks his mum has the head of a white rose in one hand. ‘Who gave you that?’ It might be from Dad. His heart climbs the ladder in his chest.
The petals crackle as his mum crumples it more. ‘It’s nothing.’ She tosses balled paper into the bin. ‘Just a notice about swimming.’
Dad used to take Tommo to Saturday lessons. Now Mum has to clean office buildings on Saturdays, and the children have to go with her. The weekends stretch long and limp, like flavourless chewing gum pulled so thin it collapses.
‘When is Dad coming back?’ None of the answers have made any sense yet.
‘He says once he has settled down in his new place.’
That doesn’t make sense either. If he hasn’t settled in England yet, wouldn’t that make it easier to come home?
He skulks away, stomach in a not-hungry pinch. He scuffs into the living room. It looks like the deading room. The ornaments that used to gleam and quiver as if they each hid a genie, fat and happy with family stories, sit there all blah and stiff.
Tommo isn’t having that. He wants the genie feeling back. He hunts for the things that still carry the murmurs, the rasp and rub of Paul, his father. There are clothes Tommo hid from Mum’s big clean out: an old sea captain’s cap; the overalls his dad wore for DIY and messing about on his friend’s boat down at Cary’s Bay. There is other stuff from cupboards and shelves. Like an experienced thief, Tommo takes loot from around the house, rolls up his haul in a duvet, and smuggles it to his room.
With a head full of stories from his mum’s Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature, from books at school, and tales swapped with his friends – Tane Mahuta breathing life into Hine-hauone, the red-earth woman; Pinocchio whittled from wood; Thumbelina flowering from a lily; the Gingerbread Man shaped from dough; Ganesh from clay and laughter, Adam from dust – Tommo gets to work.
From his bundle he pulls out cap, overalls and Paul’s two-piece wooden hairbrushes that he used to clap together after his shower, and which still hold stray hairs and the scent of him. He brings out the large hand-held mirror that Paul always used to check the back of his head, to make sure he’d brushed away the tidemark his caps left there. Tommo checks his hoodie pocket for a sneaked box of matches.
He arranges everything carefully. The mirror is a face. Leaves from a succulent the children gave Paul are the green eyes. The brushes stick up as hair; perched on top of them the braided, navy-blue cap. Tommo uses tennis racquets for arms, tennis balls and a shaving brush for a basic idea of genitals, though after a moment he tucks them inside the overalls. At chest height, where a man’s heart should sit snug, is an old copper miner’s kettle. It has cool screw-on lids on the top and on the spout, both attached by small chains so you can never lose them. On wet weekends, Amy and Tommo used to play camping with it, beside the pup tent their dad set up for them indoors. Paul said Tommo could keep that kettle, one day.
Now Tommo takes a razor blade he found left towards the back of the bathroom cupboard. He passes it through a match flame, the way his mother disinfects needles before prising out splinters. He makes a nick in the soft pad of his pinkie. Cross-legged, he squeezes out drips into the kettle, wincing a chain of ow-ow-ows under his breath.
When the sting dulls to a throb, he closes his eyes and tenses every muscle so tight that his body shakes. All his bones are wishbones: the wanting almost splits him. The crackling and popping in his joints tries to draw up Dad from the effigy, to pull him through the air, to defy the ache of distance, make him spring free the way he leapt up through waves at St Clair, up from the sand bottom, huffing and spluttering, laughing through streaming water, when they played Little Sprats Ride the Whale’s Back in the sea.
The air in the room stays dull and empty. The only movement is the dust swirl in a shaft of sunlight. Tommo cries. Angry crying. In his head throb words in his mother’s voice, overheard as she talks on her phone: I can’t believe he’d do this to his own kids … I can’t help thinking that if men gave birth …
The words hurt like the sunstroke of being out under the heat of wanting too hard, too long. Tommo stares at the handmade father. With a foot, he nudges at the overall cuffs, as if he’s found a large fish washed up on sand. He rests a palm on the copper kettle. There is no on, off, on, off blink of heart-beat.
He shuffles from his room, dragging a hand along the hallway’s pale wallpaper. Low down, there are black and blue scars, where hard shoes or suitcases might have bashed. His backless slippers make a sad slap-slap sound. It reminds him of rigging in the wind, down at the jetty on cold days. He passes his little sister’s room. There is nobody there, but he drifts in. Tommo sees her Baby Born doll. He picks it up, tucks it inside his T-shirt, and holds it there, stroking it.
He hears the patter of his sister’s footsteps and her sniffles as she mumbles to herself. He whips out the doll, yanks off its head. When Amy comes in, sucking her thumb, he flings the severed poppet at her. ‘Raahh!! Did I scare ya? Look out for Annabelle!’ he bellows.
He is shamefully grateful for the smoke-screen of his sister’s tears and screams; glad even to be told he must go to his room, and think long and hard about the way he’s behaved. He wants to be alone. In the quiet, he can think about the way the hard plastic against his belly had started to warm, as if a sleepy pup had been allowed to nestle up close to its watchful alpha.
by Vaughan Rapatahana
I haven’t told anyone this previously.
You will be the first.
But I reckon that after 51 years it is about time I spoke up.
After all, I am going to be 75 in a couple of weeks and I reckon not much damage can be done to me now, eh.
You see, I know all about what really happened in Ngatea back in 1969.
Those crop circles. They were real sure enough. They were not some crazy bastard cruising around Hauraki playing silly buggers with bits of wood and lawn mowers. No bloody way. Like I just said. They were the real deal.
How do I know this?
Because one of those bloody space craft picked me up out back of O’Neill’s farm after it landed and found me sleeping rough in the bush.
Why was I there? Long story. I was on the lam myself after helping George Wilder for a bit and I had to hide away until things settled down. Couldn’t go back to town, not while the coppers were searching everywhere for him, knowing that he must have had what they called ‘accomplices’ for certain. How else did he mange to vanish so well and so many times? I reckon it must have been about his fourth escape. I helped him a bit with when I supplied him with that rowboat. Police would’ve nabbed me for sure.
I know, I know. You now want to know how the hell I got mixed up with that wild bastard? Well, that’s another long tale and I won’t say too much here. Except that I was young and needed some money. Besides which, my father – your grandfather – and George went way back together.
Anyway, where was I? That’s right, those bloody spacecraft! I must have been sound asleep when they picked me up because I’m buggered if I know how else they got me on board. I do not remember seeing or hearing anything that night in September. But I do recall waking up and seeing all these bright lights and funny colours that I’d never seen before. I was wired up
to some metal contraption too. Funny little beeping noises were coming from it. Like in a Hollywood movie, actually.
I have no idea how long I was on board that bloody flying machine either. All I know is that I was dropped off up the bloody Coromandel peninsula sometime afterwards. And the bush up there was twice as rugged as that scruffy Ngatea stuff. Took me a while to find my way out of there too. Funny thing is that I was not hungry at any stage. Those bloody aliens, whatever they were, must have fed me up good somehow. But I never saw one at all, you know.
I did get a good glimpse of the Moehau Men though; a couple of them a couple of times when I was hacking my way back toward civilization. I don’t reckon that they ever saw me, but by crikey, they were big buggers. Massive actually. And their shoe size must be about 22. Of course, they don’t wear shoes. But that’s another story altogether, eh. Another time, eh.
I never did get back to Ngatea. I found my way to Colville and settled in with the Ngāti Porou fellas who were living there. Funny thing was, that I found I could speak fluent reo Māori after my space adventure or kidnap or whatever you want to call it. I found myself switching from te reo IngarihikitereoMāori tetaimakatoa. Kāore he rarurarumō ahau. Ngāwari.
I kiteae ahau he wahine tinoataahuahoki. Ki teingoa o Makere. I hangaemātou he wharehōumōngātamariki. Me ngākuri.
I nohokireiramōngā tau ruaruanei.
But then I was called away overseas to help smooth the way for a peaceful solution to the ongoing dispute in Luzon. You know Luzon, eh. Main island in Philippines. Where your Mum comes from. I was selected because no one much back then spoke Tagalog here and they wanted outside peacekeepers from a reputable country or some such baloney. Our country, I guess, fitted the bill. Flew me over to act as liaison between warring factions. NPA and the government troops. Ongoing skirmishes. Walangproblemasa akin kaibigan.
Yes, I know, I know. You are going to ask me how come I could also speak Tagalog? Well, I tell you, I didn’t even know where Luzon was until those bloody invisible spacemen or women or whatever, snatched me. But when I met a couple of Filipino seamen during my time in Colville, the words just flowed automatically, as did my reputation as a fluent speaker of a whole lot of languages.
Ngunit ang kapayapaan ay hindinagtagal. Those foes are still fighting themselves silly over there. It is, after all, the world’s longest running communist insurgency. Bloody National Peoples Army bullshit. Don’t you get caught up with them when you go back to see your whānau!
Now, that’s enough about that. I feel good now that I have told you about those crop circles. Yes, there is a hell of a lot more I could say about some of my other adventures, but I reckon that can wait for a bit.
Oh, okay. You want to know about my time in Hong Kong, where a couple of your young sisters were born. 1997 handover. Another saga. Chinese government made a polite request for my services as an ‘independent observer’. Which basically meant they didn’t trust the British and they needed someone who spoke fluent Mandarin to report back on British ploys.他们认为英国人不会诚实. Fair enough, I reckon. 我也不相信英国人!
Enough blabbering now. I’m tired.
Oh okay, yes, I do think that I was given or gifted or something a whole lot of wisdom on that space trip. I could tell you all about the meaning of life too, but you won’t understand the ^^))## language. You don’t believe me? Well tell me what this means.
I knew you wouldn’t know. Next time, I’ll explain. Perhaps.
I am going to go back home down south for a bit now this bloody lockdown is over. I’ve seen you and some of the other kids up here and it was great to share a bit of stuff.
But I am a bit worried that bloody black panther might get into my goats again. It has been annoying me for a couple of years now. It sure ain’t some feral cat that one. Too big and fast.
I never tell anyone I’ve seen it roaming around the farmlands.
No one will believe me.
Crop Circles glossary
Walangproblemasa akin kaibigan – No problem for me, friend.
Ngunit ang kapayapaan ay hindinagtagal – But peace did not last long.
他们认为英国人不会诚实 – They did not think the British would be honest.
我也不相信英国人 – I did not trust the British either!
And everyone in this country should be able to read te reo Māori, eh!
by Julie Taylor
‘Mum, we have a situation ...’
I look up from my book and observe my daughter's face. She looks serious, embarrassed.
‘What is it?’ I say, somewhat alarmed.
‘Well,’ she pauses. ‘It's the doves.’
My heart sinks. The bloody doves. Ever since we moved down to the country, we have been plagued by a flock of doves. Twelve of them to be exact. Our visiting city friends rave about the doves. ‘They’re so cute!’ they exclaim. But the local plumber disagreed. ‘Down here,’ he said, ‘we call them the rats of the skies’. And a neighbouring farmer concurred. ‘You'll have to get rid of those damned doves,’ he said. ‘They’re a right nuisance!’
‘What's happened now?’ I ask. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘Well,’ she sounds hesitant, ‘I was about to get into bed and the doves were cooing loudly. I didn't think I’d be able to get to sleep so I thought, I know, I’ll scare them away.’
Annoyingly, the doves choose to roost on the same part of the roof every night: the section over the front verandah, directly below my daughter's bedroom window. Not only are they slowly destroying the roof surface with their guano and the plants that are able to propagate within it, they also create an enormous amount of noise pollution.
‘And did it work? Did you manage to frighten them off?’
‘Not really…’ This time her embarrassment is acute. ‘I thought if I shone a torch on them it might scare them away. So I used the torch app on my phone.’ She pauses for a moment. ‘I was waving the torch about,’ she mimics the action, ‘but I forgot I had my debit card and student ID stored in the cover. They’ve fallen on the roof. Perhaps we can get a ladder in the morning and get them back …?’
‘Let's go and have a look. I need to see this for myself.’
When we reach her bedroom, I peer over the edge of the open window, quickly locating the missing cards. The pesky doves surround them, enjoying their new toys. With the doves’ interest piqued, I doubt the cards will survive the night.
But I have a far more pressing concern. The oppressive humidity of the evening presages an imminent storm. Before long, torrents of tropical rain will lash our roof, washing the cards into the gutter and downpipes. Waiting until morning is not a viable option.
‘We’ll have to rescue them.’ I speak confidently, reassuringly.
In fact, I have no idea how to undertake this mission. I think quickly. This is the moment for a number 8 fencing wire fix. I can't climb onto the roof from the bedroom. The window is too high up and it's dark. The ladders are all safely stored in the big shed at the end of the property. I don't really want to walk all that way to fetch them. Who knows what dangers may be lurking in the blackness? I think of opossums or, heaven forbid, rodents.
‘I know,’ I say. ‘Let's put some Blu-Tack at the end of a broom and see if we can hoist them up.’
Enthused by the plan, my daughter goes in search of a broom. I locate the Blu-Tack in my study. After placing the sticky substance on the tip of the broom, I lean out the window and attempt to secure one of the cards. I am balanced precariously on the very edge of the aluminium frame. The narrow ridge is pressing into my buttocks. I feel as though I might fall any moment. I stretch out as far as I am able, but the broom isn't long enough.
‘This isn't working,’ I groan. ‘We'll have to try something else.’
The look of anxiety on my daughter's face is arresting. A mixture of panic, fear, and a strained vulnerability. It's as if the plastic cards have acquired a type of mystical value. She now desperately needs to get them back.
‘I'll have a go.’ Her voice is steely, determined. A superhero in the making.
My daughter is short-sighted, dyspraxic, and has never been particularly good at balancing – even on her own legs. I simply cannot allow her to perch on the dangerous narrow ledge of the window frame. She is almost certain to tumble out.
I wrack my brains for a suitable solution. Then, it occurs to me that there's nothing wrong with my rescue methodology, it's simply that the broom handle isn't long enough. What, I wonder, would happen if I could extend it in some way?
‘I've got it.’ My Eureka moment. ‘Let's attach two brooms together. I can tape them in place. Then we should be able to reach the cards.’
A second broom is found, this time from the downstairs cupboard. I have plenty of packaging tape left over from our move south, so strapping the handles together is the work of a moment. However, the extended broom arm is unwieldy and difficult to manoeuvre.
I check that the Blu-Tack is still firmly adhered to the pointy end. We carefully thread our new weapon through the open window, and I return to my perch. If anything, the aluminium frame feels even more uncomfortable. It reminds me of teenage jaunts in my sister's mini, too many of us crowded into the backseat and being forced to sit on the ridge by the window. As I recall, the anticipation of attending a rock concert at Western Springs was tempered with the anguish of my precarious placement on the side pocket edge. But that was over 30 years ago, and I was 15 kilos lighter. I reflect that the additional padding is not providing much relief. Every movement is painful.
The wind has picked up, and I'm struggling to keep control of my invented rescue arm. I am close to the first of the cards now and attempt to keep my movements as precise as possible. I hover the tip of the arm over the card and place it carefully on top. Success! Cautiously I lever it skywards. The card lifts in the air about a centimetre, then detaches. It falls back onto the roof even further away than before. I can't afford to make another error. I take another jab, slightly more forceful this time, in the hopes of making the card stick to the end. It seems to work. Slowly, I inch the card towards the window, my daughter carefully pulling on the broom head. We are determined to land this fish. As soon as the card is within reach, I extract it quickly from the tip and withdraw into the bedroom.
The sense of relief is palpable. Mission accomplished. Well, the first mission at any rate. My daughter cradles the card in her hands.
‘Well, that’s my bank card saved. It would’ve been such a hassle to replace it down here. Thanks, mum! You’re amazing!’
Suddenly a deafening roll of thunder erupts from the inky blackness. The storm has arrived. Almost instantaneously we hear raindrops pelting against the open window. A less satisfied, more agitated cooing from the doves. A subtropical downpour is about to commence.
No time to rest on our laurels, we are spurred into action once more. My daughter shines a torch out of the window as I attempt to reach the final plastic rectangle. It’s a little further off, but the surrounding doves have been scared off by the heavy rain. They are huddling against the house, a whimpering chorus of discontented vocalists. I can see the white outline of the student ID clearly. I lunge forward, gripping the window frame tightly, hoping the adhesive quality of the Blu-Tack will survive this sudden deluge of water. I stab, miss, stab again and connect. Astonishingly, the card is sticking to the broom handle. I’m less hesitant this time, more aware of the violence of the summer downpour. Somehow, miraculously, I haul our booty home.
My arm is drenched, my forehead beaded in sweat. But I experience a surge of elation, an adrenalin fuelled exuberance. We’ve done it! We have completed our mission. I sit on the end of my daughter’s bed, revelling in the sense of fulfilment.
Cara is literally jumping for joy. Reunited with her vagrant cards, she exudes excitement and satisfaction.
‘Mum, you are awesome! This is brilliant – totally brilliant!’ She is ecstatic.
Suddenly, I am aware of a bigger picture. I realise there is more than just plastic cards at stake here. This is a battle won. The damaging and demanding doves will not triumph. We have fired the first shot.