The princess, following tradition, sought love among the amphibians of the local bog. She was careful which she kissed. Only creatures exhibiting exceptional nobility, by their stature, or their proud stance, could tempt her.
One afternoon, near despair at the absence of eligible toads, she spied an unremarkable animal some distance from the water. The King, my father, she thought, is not so handsome, but he makes himself attractive by being always stand-offish. Perhaps this is what I should be seeking.
The aloof frog took no chasing, but hopped right to her. The princess scooped it up and took it to her lips. It croaked, shifted its weight forward and puckered up, though she did not see this because it was her habit to close her eyes against the abject unpleasantness of the seldom magic peck. Their lips met. Instantly she heard the frog’s voice, as words this time. ‘My darling, at last.’
She opened her eyes and gasped at the receiver of her kiss, still very much reptilian. ‘B…b…but——But in the story you transform into a handsome prince.’
‘Strange,’ replied the frog. ‘We have a similar tale. Though it seems, my pretty green one, that ours is the less fictitious.’
All I had to guide me was a diary entry and the hand-drawn map accompanying it—a river bend, an island, a grove of trees, a cross.
In the morning we took her by rowboat to her favourite place. There we buried her. We sprinkled poppy seeds on her grave, said a prayer and bade her goodbye. Our poor little one. When things are better, we’ll bring a stone to mark her resting place.
Tomorrow I sell the last of the bullocks. Flinders will pay me and may have a few days work besides. We think him wealthy because his family is not hungry. But he is a good neighbour, and God willing, with his help we will make it through.
My grandfather had been a timber cutter in the riverland. He’d done well enough until the crash. Orders dried up. Pretty soon the mill closed.
I walked along the bank trying to pick out the places on the map. But the river had changed course. There was no sign of any island. And the bush had regrown—I’d never distinguish a grove within it. But as I was about to turn back a flash of red caught my eye. Three bright-headed poppies among the dirty green. I crouched to touch them and tried to imagine the scene.
Lilian had had her eye on Dan from the start. She picked him out the afternoon her family moved in—slouching on the corner with a cigarette dangling from his lip. ‘Gaspers’, he called them and he didn’t so much smoke them as pose with them.
Her mother forbade Lilian any contact. When her daughter befriended him, Mrs Thorpe warned, ‘don’t you get serious, now.’
He left school to join the mine so he could ask for Lilian’s hand. Mrs Thorpe just shrugged and said, ‘that boy’ll be the death of you.’
But he proved a hard worker, devoted to nothing more than their being together. He started off in loading—came home dusty each night. She’d strip the overalls from him and run his bath. Soon he was on a digging crew, then foreman before he turned thirty.
All his working life he spent there, and the sadness of no little ones was tempered by his love for his girl Lil.
They started talking about the dust, then Bobby Cohn got the wheeze. If Dan had caught it she’d have remained proud of him. But his lungs stayed strong. Now she wondered what sort of blessing that was—to either of them.
“Are you comfortable, Darling.” Dan shuffled in from the kitchen to check her respirator.
Jim lost track of Rosalie after she went to London.
Five years later he just wanted to keep things together with Leanne. They were both travelling for work and seemed to do half their talking online.
He logged on. New messages—three from Leanne, a Nigerian scam, ads, and something from rosieb—probably another lonely Russian. Something made him open it. ‘Hi Jimbo. Rosalie, here. Long time no see. London’s been amazing for me—well I guess you know…’
Darling of the West End—he’d seen the headlines.
‘…I’ll be home for summer. We could catch up? –R.’
They’d have nothing in common. Maybe he’d answer later.
He opened the three from Leanne. Her words seemed distant, as if she were fading from him. If he let things drift they’d finish just friends, laughing about past passion. Jim hated that thought. He’d never written anything like it. Never tried to say what words seemed incapable of saying. When he hit send, an hour later, he was still unaware he’d clicked ‘reply’ on the wrong window.
Rosalie quoted him on Twitter. Romance isn’t dead…
Leanne got the redirected message next morning. She’d already read the most heartfelt of Jim’s words. Bah, she thought, hitting delete. It’s not even his drivel.
Of course she doesn’t love him the way I do. She doesn’t have his interests at heart. It was obvious last night, when they were kissing. She couldn’t see the look on his face. It was—how best to describe it? Disinterested. Yes, that’s it. And her, all the time, pawing at him and batting her empty doe eyes. Only when he saw me in the shadows of the palms did he show any emotion. He jiggled out of her embrace and made towards me. But it wasn’t our time; not with the film soon to premiere and him in line, at last, for the roles he deserves.
So I took my leave.
Now I’m standing behind the velvet ropes, the red carpet stretched before them. The rubbernecking fans are already gathering around me. Tonight he will have the chance to compare. I have her dress, you see. The one she’ll wear. He’ll see how well I wear it. How pale she is beside me. The cameras will capture it. Tonight.
The chefs had cleared out. Front-of-house, Candy and her crew were clearing the last of the tables.
Max had one rack of glasses going through, the last dishes set to go. Three pots were soaking. There were cooktops to wipe down and the grill to drain. He might have been the best in the business but at the end of the night he was still a dish pig.
Candy came in with the linen. ‘Still stinking hot outside.’
‘Cheer up Maxy.’ Maxy! —Was she having a go at him again. ‘Table eight left half their booze. We’ll be down at the pool when you’re done.
The place was a mansion on 20 acres. The pool was right out of Hollywood—strictly out of bounds. Max crashed through the last of the cleaning up—tried not to look too desperate. But only Candy and Miko, and Hans, the security guy, were left when he emerged. It wasn’t until he was close that he realised the girls had stripped out of their dinner suits. Their hair was dripping. A Great Gatsby setting, Candy in translucent underwear, free beer and the night sky. It wasn’t such a bad job.
Miko said she had to leave. Hans went to see her out.
‘One more swim,’ said Candy. ‘C’mon Maxy. You only live once.’
Holly’s timing had been all wrong. The week she moved to the city the market crashed. Suddenly the big contracts dried up and she had to cobble together bits and pieces just to cover her rent and the business loan. It left no time for getting to know the place.
Though she’d been dreading Christmas, she’d decided to make the best of a bad lot. She could at least get Christmas cards. There’d be a few, of course, from old friends and family, but she wanted some from her new neighbourhood. So she signed up to every loyalty program and mailing list she could, just in case. The cards started arriving, neatly printed, some with her name in mechanical script. From realtors and butchers, sationers, the local gym and more.
She was buying mince tarts at the bakery when she noticed an application form—Join our ‘Baker’s Dozen’ program for specials and discounts. She signed up on the spot, then, because he seemed a nice guy, she told the baker who’d served her about her idea to get cards. ‘It’s just abit of fun, really.’
‘We don’t do cards,’ he said. ‘But heh, if you don’t know anyone what’ll you do Christmas day?’
‘Can’t have that. Mum’d love to have you. What d’ya say?’
Six years in the ring had taken a toll. When Hector told him about the bout Louie could hardly believe it. Sure he’d won his last five but they’d been against battlers.
‘A shot at the title, Maddy. Do you know what that means? It means respect.’
‘Sure, Louie,’ I said. ‘Only Shanahan’s eighteen from eighteen. Better fights than you’ve ever had.’
‘You’re like the rest of them. You’ll see. He’s getting slow. I can take him.’
‘Good for you, Louie.’ I’d have told him to back out—a quick hammer-blow to the hand, hide it until training, then reveal the break. The commission would call it off. Simple.
But I’d got too close to both of them. Hector kept dangerous company and I was on his payroll now. Keeping Louie out of trouble—a little romance, a little sweet talk—was worth more money than I’d ever known. The sting was on for Shanahan to dive in the fifth, take a standing count then deck Louie in the seventh. Hector’d train Louie all wrong. Shanahan would be safe as houses. The Larsons would triple their earnings—first knock down, then the winner. They’d even name the round.
I rubbed Louie’s shoulders. ‘You’ve earned this, slugger,’ I said.
God he’d have been handsome if he hadn’t been a fighter.
Al set high standards. If a girl couldn’t tell a Little Lorikeet from a Musk Lorikeet, mimic the call of a powerful owl or get excited about pelicans mating then she wasn’t for him. Al was young, strong, intelligent, good-looking, and obsessed. He left, in his wake, a string of girlfriends, each with a slightly crumpled heart and an antipathy towards birds.
Gloria knew how to get to him. ‘Except roasted,’ she said. ‘Roasted they’re ok.’
Al was appalled enough to laugh. They’d been carpooling for three months and most of their conversation was either about birds or patchwork—Gloria seemed to spend all her spare time patiently sewing tiny pieces of fabric together.
‘I don’t see the point,’ he said. ‘You can buy a decent rug at Murchison’s for next to nothing.’ Gloria’s pieces were beautiful. But that wasn’t going to stop him goading her.
‘What would you know, Birdman.’ She fingered the stitches on the centrepiece she was working on. A pink cockatoo on a branch. She’d have it ready by Christmas.
Al had been thinking about a bird book just to stir her up. But he’d checked out a shop she talked about and bought a sewing box instead. Maybe it was too much. Ah well it was done now.
It seemed every time she’d got close enough to someone to even think about settling down she’d been hurt. Lester had promised the earth and she’d half believed he’d break the cycle. Which made it worse. She’d left behind everything she had to follow him to this God-forsaken island. All she’d got for her troubles were rain and misery. He’d taken so much from her. So she’d taken the rotten car. It was a bomb—rusted through so you could see the road racing beneath your feet. First gear was sticky and second stripped.
God, what a place. As she raced north towards what counted for civilisation the road was littered with carcasses. She’d stopped trying to avoid them. Nobody else seemed to have worried. Every hundred metres or so some other poor beast had been mown down. Their bodies were in various stages of being turned to felt by passing traffic.
Elise knew what that was like. She started lining them up, as if somehow flattening them further would counter the hits she kept taking. At least they’d been finished off, nice and clean. They’d never had to live with the indignity of this road, this drive. Of fleeing yet again.
Frank found little time for anything but work and family after Ella left. He was always either looking after the girls or at the yard doing overtime to pay the bills. Once a fortnight El would turn up, sometimes in a taxi, or others with some new man impatiently observing from the driver’s seat. Every time Veronica and Imogene came home they’d tell me about the lavish treats that undermined the hard-learned lessons he’d given them on the value of things.
After a year or so the boyfriends stopped and the visits became more erratic. She looked worse each time she came. The girls told him it wasn’t fun being with Mummy any more.
She called him asking for money. He said he’d give her what she needed if she really tried to get better—but she had to stay away until she was well again.
She hung up. That afternoon she arrived unannounced and demanded to see them. They hid in their room, as their parents shouted and swore, cried and swore some more. And when Ella finally slammed the door behind her they stayed hidden.
Frank made dinner in a house so quiet it seemed to have stopped living. Spaghetti and meatballs—it was their favourite.
She’d been invited to Averley because it was the sort of place where everyone was welcome. When she got there—more like two hours drive than the ‘bit over an hour’ she’d been told—it wasn’t at all what she expected. No power, no town water, no comforts. But beautiful. The ‘lawn’ was a meadow running all the way to the river. Beyond that were wild foothills and glimpses of alpine peaks tickled by cloud.
Albert Borden took her bag and showed her the bunk room. ‘In with the women,’ he said, ‘so us fellas can get some sleep.’ Then he poured her wine from a cask and introduced her to everyone on the porch, which was the place to be on a warm afternoon.
It wasn’t until after dinner, when she was talking to the other women, that she realised there were more Borden women than men. Albert, it turned out, was not only a client of hers (hence her invitation) but he was on his own. It was information worth knowing. Men her age were usually either partnered up or deadbeats.
‘What do we do for entertainment?’ she asked.
‘Two choices. said a voice behind her—Albert, a guitar slung over one shoulder. ‘Sing or listen.’
‘I can’t sing,’ said Carol.
‘We’ll see about that.’
Brit started training for the ultramarathon as a new year’s resolution.
When Tex, her fitness trainer, signed up too they became training partners. He was a man of few words, delivered gruffly. Brit found him baffling. The men she knew, students and academics, loved ideas and argument. Tex seemed, by comparison, entirely physical.
Neither of them saw the ute when it lost traction rounding a bend. It slid sideways from behind, collecting them, as a broom collects dust.
When she woke in hospital he was there, his face still swollen with bruising. When she felt for her legs Tex told her—words begrudgingly given, but not out of gruffness. He was still beside her five months later when she wheeled out of hospital. Every time she told him she’d be fine, he mumbled, ‘yes,’ and kept right on, until she stopped trying to persuade him to leave. She feared he might become dependant on her dependence on him. But he wasn’t a trainer for no reason. It was Tex who told her to do things herself when therapists were still talking about ‘a step at a time’.
And it will be the same when the little one comes. He will help, but not do. He will be there. How she loves her unlikely man. How they love each other.
Deidre was all class. Good school. Good family. The good side of town. I was from Dunnesfield—say no more.
Our different paths crossed at the races, where people like her and people like me both felt at home.
While waiting in a bookie’s queue I’d put her onto a good thing, which won in a protest. Three races and a few champagne’s later she tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Thanks for the tip.’
‘No worries,’ I said. ‘Bobby’s the name.’
I called her the next week to see if she wanted to watch track work. She knew her stuff around horses. That’s what got us together.
But I remained self-conscious around her. Constantly minding my manners and my P’s and Q’s. Anything not to spoil things between us. I felt like I was walking on ice. As if any moment I’d fall through.
Driving through rain-soaked streets one day we passed a group of boys in a bus shelter. Deidre let her BMW drift into the overflowing gutter, sending a wave of water over them.
‘What did you do that for?’ I said.
‘Because I’m not perfect.’
‘But I don’t——.’
‘Don’t bullshit me Bobby.’ She glanced in the rear-view mirror. ‘Ha. They’re not happy.’ And she laughed like a girl from Dunnesfield High, not St Margarets.
Lester looked like an accountant, too shy to even look me in the eye. Maybe he’d meant to enrol in tax law down the hall but got the form wrong.
There was one easel left so I set up next to him. I didn’t need the tuition. I just enrolled to keep my eye in. I’d try not to be too critical of my classmates.
The model entered, let her robe fall.
‘Three-minute poses,’ announced the coordinator. ‘Just concentrate on form. Use these to loosen up.’
I knew the ropes. I swept my charcoal in fluid arcs across the page. Next to me Lester was scratching away.
At the first break he came behind me, looked at the work on the easel, and the sheets on the floor and said softly, ‘very nice.’ And they weren’t bad. I’d been a good drawer back at art school and I could happily say I hadn’t lost it.
Ah well, I thought. Better return the favour. ‘How’d you go, Lester?’
He just pointed to his easel. A single sheet filled with figures that were exquisitely observed, energetically rendered and passionate. My God, I thought, you’re a dark horse. And I wanted to break through to him. Get to know everything in that yawning gap between the drawings and the man who made them.